As a branch of the Treasury Department, the United States Mint would usually be subject to federal procurement laws, like bid protests. As one contractor recently discovered, however, certain activities at the Mint have been exempted from many federal procurement laws, including GAO protest review.
Simply put, the GAO can’t decide a bid protest of Mint procurements.
A-Z Cleaning Solutions, B-415228 (Nov. 6, 2017), involved a procurement for janitorial services at the Mint facility in San Francisco, California. A-Z Cleaning was named an unsuccessful offeror. Following notification, A-Z Cleaning filed a protest before GAO, challenging the Mint’s best-value trade-off decision.
The Mint moved to dismiss the protest, arguing that GAO lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The Mint’s argument was based on the interaction between the Competition in Contracting Act (the “CICA”) and specific statutes addressing Mint activities.
Under the CICA, GAO has the authority to decide “a protest submitted . . . by an interested party.” See 31 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Protests are a “written objection by an interested party to . . . [a] solicitation or other request by a Federal agency for offers for a contract for the procurement of property or services.” 31 U.S.C. § 3551(1)(A). Federal agency is defined as “an executive agency[.]” 40 U.S.C. § 102(5). What this collection of statutes means is that GAO generally has jurisdiction to decide protests of procurements conducted by executive branch agencies.
The Mint, as a branch of the Treasury Department, is an executive agency. Accordingly, its procurement decisions should be subject to protest before GAO. A separate statute, however, complicates matters.
In 1996, Congress expressly exempted Mint procurements for operations and programs from the CICA. Pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 5136, “provisions of law governing procurement or public contracts shall not be applicable to the procurement of goods or services necessary for carrying out Mint programs and operations.” The statute also defined Mint operations and programs as follows:
(1) [T]he activities concerning, and assets utilized in, the production, administration, distribution, marketing, purchase, sale, and management of coinage, numismatic items, the protection and safeguarding of Mint assets and those non-Mint assets in the custody of the Mint, and the [Mint Public Enterprise Fund]; and (2) includes capital, personnel salaries and compensation, functions relating to operations, marketing, distribution, promotion, advertising, official reception and representation, the acquisition or replacement of equipment, the renovation or modernization of facilities, and the construction or acquisition of new buildings[.]
In A-Z Cleaning, the Mint argued that the janitorial services it ordered were “functions relating to operations” of the Mint; therefore, the procurement of such services was excepted from procurement laws—including the CICA—and thus outside of GAO’s jurisdiction.
GAO agreed with the Mint’s argument. After walking through the statutes laid out above, GAO said:
Because the establishing legislation provides that federal procurement laws and regulations do not apply to the procurement of goods or services necessary for carrying out the Mint’s operations and programs, and those operations and programs are defined broadly enough to encompass substantially all of the Mint’s activities, we conclude that the Mint is not subject to the terms of CICA. Furthermore, because the bid protest jurisdiction of our Office derives from CICA, we must conclude that the Mint is not subject to that jurisdiction.
GAO further explained that its conclusion regarding the Mint was consistent with prior decisions regarding the Presidio Trust and United States Postal Service, which are subject to similar exemptions. Accordingly, GAO dismissed the protest.
What does GAO’s decision in A-Z Cleaning mean for Mint bidders? Clearly, GAO believes that it lacks authority to decide pretty much any bid protest of a Mint procurement. (As noted above, while the statutes may not be 100% clear on the extent of the prohibition, the GAO believes that the jurisdictional ban applies to “substantially all” of the Mint’s activities). The Court of Federal Claims may still be an option; however, not all contractors are interested in full-blown courtroom litigation against the government. Simply put, for contractors bidding on Mint jobs, the potential protest options are considerably narrower than normal.