Having done a lot of military aerospace work over the years, I am not surprised that it costs the U.S. government $12,000 for a toilet seat that I can buy at a home-improvement store for $23.
For those readers who have been fortunate enough never to have had to do business with the federal government, I will try to explain.
Simply put, doing business with the government means paperwork — lots of it. It means having to conform to endless requirements regarding the structure of your company, including the names and addresses of its owners, the number of years it has been in business, the name of your bank, how many children you have, your citizenship and whether your belly button is an “innie” or an “outie.” (Well, I exaggerate a bit.)
It always involves things called FARs. FAR is an acronym for Federal Acquisition Regulation, and it can cover such subjects as “Anti-Kickback Procedures,” “Price or Fee Adjustment for Illegal or Improper Activity,” “Protection of Existing Vegetation, Structures, Equipment, Utilities and Improvements,” “Ozone Depleting Substances,” “Restriction on Severance Payments to Foreign Nationals” and “Certification of Final Indirect Costs” — to name just a few of about 1,700 other FARs attached to most government contracts and that must be studied, understood and complied with as part of one’s commitment for the satisfactory completion of a toilet seat contract with the government.
Now, assuming you have done your homework regarding the FARs attached to your contract, there is still the matter of the contract itself, which will contain requirements for something called certifications. Assuming that a toilet seat is made of wood with a plastic finish coating and hinges, washers and nuts made of chrome-plated steel, you will undoubtedly be required to furnish certifications guaranteeing that the wood is from a sustainable-growth domestic forest, that its moisture content doesn’t exceed 2.76 percent water and that the employees of the company that cut down the tree were all documented U.S. citizens. (I’m making all this up, but I assure you it’s based on years of experience with these sorts of things.)
You will then have to furnish material certifications that guarantee that the steel in the hinges was made of 4130-C3 steel, and that it has been heat-treated to a tensile strength of 125,000 to 145,000 PSI. And more certifications covering the chrome plating, the plastic coating material, the personnel who applied the coating, the U.S. source of the washers and the testing procedures used to verify that the seat will withstand the “pressure” of a 250-pound person.
Now you’re ready to finally ship the toilet seat. Not so fast. You must conform with paragraphs in the contract that specify that the toilet seat be identified with a rubber stamp in 16-point Helvetica Bold containing the contract number, the 26-digit government part number, the date of manufacture, the manufacturer’s name and address, etc. Oh, and don’t forget to include the certifications for the ink that you used to rubber-stamp the seat.
Now you can put each toilet seat in the cardboard carton specified in the contract and covered by FAR numbers 57.609-17, 58.331-03 and 64.987-05 and identified with a label as specified in paragraphs 6.4, 16.9 and 123.8.
Or, you could go to Home Depot.
— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.