The administration has also pushed for changes in how the competitions are conducted. Under traditional rules, federal workers are given time to offer their own proposals for working more efficiently, which might involve laying off workers or using new technology. The federal workers' plans are then compared with bids from outside contractors, and one or the other is chosen.
In May, the White House barred federal workers in many cases from offering their own "most efficient" proposals, saying the process took too long. Unions and some lawmakers protested, but the White House apparently has persuaded Congress to keep the new rules mostly untouched, unions say.
"This administration has set the playing field so slanted toward the contractors that there really isn't any competition. It's a giveaway," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The Medicare bill has also sparked a debate over the rules for competition -- as well as a fight over how to view the experience with Medicare health maintenance organizations so far.
Since 1985, a limited number of seniors have been able to join private insurance plans, subsidized by Medicare, that have sprung up in some areas of the country. By 1999, private plans were serving 6.2 million seniors, or 16% of all beneficiaries. Some plans won customers by offering better benefits than Medicare -- prescription drug coverage, for example.
Then companies began abandoning the market. Today, only 4.6 million people, less than 12%, are in Medicare HMOs.
Insurers say the reason for the drop is that the government has underpaid private plans. In Washington state for example, private plans get 94 cents for every dollar given to health-care providers in the traditional Medicare program, said Karen Ignagni, president of head of AAHP-HIAA, an insurance trade group.
But Kuttner and others said the experience showed that private plans overreached when they promised they could offer better benefits and still profit.
"Competition is not a perfect device," said Paul Light of the Brookings Institution. "The market often fails. It failed for Medicare."
Mitchell, the Heritage Foundation economist, is among those who say the Medicare bill should control costs by fostering even more competition. In a separate complaint, he faulted the Bush administration for failing to stop Congress from turning air passenger screeners into federal employees after Sept. 11 -- a rare case of private jobs becoming public jobs.
"When you have an idea that you really think will make the world better, and you see people throw up roadblocks, it's very frustrating," Mitchell said of competition. "Nonetheless, I'd rather be in my shoes than over at the unions, trying to oppose this tide of history."