Rep. Mac Thornberry at work.

Rep. Mac Thornberry at work.

WASHINGTON: For “at least 50 years of frustration,” the Vice-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said this morning, people have kept trying to fix the Pentagon’s procurement problems, but the problems keep on getting worse. It’s time to stop layering one band-aid atop another and look at the system as a (dysfunctional) whole, said Rep. Mac Thornberry — and part of that dysfunction comes from Congress itself.

“Every few years since I’ve been in Congress — [that's] nearly 20 years… we’ve passed some legislation on acquisition reform,” said Thornberry, whom HASC chairman Buck McKeon recently tapped to lead a new drive for reform. Today he was speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where the Defense Department’s acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, spoke on the same topic just 10 days ago. Some individual laws have helped and some have hurt, Thornberry told the audience at CSIS, but overall, “things are no better now and in some ways they’re worse than 20 years ago.”

“What we’ve done so far has not worked out so well,” said the understated Texan. “We’re not going to make things better by piling on new mandates, new oversight offices, new micromanagement.” Instead, Thornberry wants to sit down with the Defense Department and defense contractors to winnow through the accumulated regulations “line by line,” he said: “go through, thin those out, and try to simplify and rationalize.”

The effort requires an equally hard look at legislation, Thornberry made clear. “Yes absolutely, Congress has contributed to this problem over the years, to a substantial extent,” he said. “So as we go through the regulations that come from the Department, we absolutely go through the statutes and reporting requirements and briefing requirements that Congress imposes as well, and we need to thin it all out.”

“We contribute to the problem,” Thornberry said.

Instead of patching every problem with a new regulation, he argued, Congress needs to empower government managers to make decisions and industry to make a profit — and then hold both accountable for results. “We’re going to have to accept some amount of risk,” he said. Yes, given freedom, somebody will inevitably screw up and waste some money — or even steal it — but the cost of trying to prevent every instance of “waste, fraud, and abuse” ends up being higher than the cost of “waste, fraud, and abuse” itself.

“Wal-Mart tolerates a certain percentage of what they call ‘shrinkage,’” Thornberry said, because the successful superstore is well aware that if they tried to stop every instance of shoplifting, they’d be frisking every customer on the way out the door and stop being able to function as a business. That’s a lesson the federal government needs to learn, Congress most of all.

Thornberry acknowledged the “understandable skepticism” that this acquisition reform effort would succeed were so many others failed. His approach would not be to attempt some revolutionary overhaul, he said, but to move with “humility” towards achievable, incremental goals.

“We’re not going to take two years to study it and come out with a 2,000 page bill,” Thornberry said. “If we can identify things to do in next year’s authorization bill, we’re going to snatch that up.”

“This is the time,” Thornberry said, arguing that ever-tighter budgets would force reform. “Not only is it possible, I would suggest it’s a necessity.” Even if Congress can repeal the sequester, cut entitlement spending, and return to a regular, stable budget process, he said, “we’re going to face tight defense budgets as far as the eye can see,” he said. “We’ve got to get more defense for the dollar.”

It’s a daunting task, but the House Armed Services Committee seems to be taking it seriously. As one of the several HASC staffers in attendance told me: “This is going to be a big damn deal for us next year.”

Comments

  • http://john101b.ipage.com/globalwarming/climatechange.html Jack Everett —– Mato

    Military procurement is nothing but more corporate piggery and waste by politicians that do nothing but create one phony crisis after the other. Band aids are all congress does to keep the theft of public funds moving smoothly to the corporate military industrial complex in their states. Eisenhower warned us about this military takeover of our republic if we allowed the military industrial take control and now we see how right he was.. We pay for new technology that is claimed to be outdated before it’s even delivered, pay exorbitant fees for cost overruns and never see the goods. Our perceived enemies are shadows to keep the flow of cash moving. We support terrorists so we can sell them weapons and later shed the blood of our youth fighting them. The pentagon is not the problem congress and the president are the problem we need to fix. The American citizens no longer control their elected leaders they just follow like lemmings running into the sea. We allow our infrastructure once the pride of the world to crumble before our eyes so generals can eat lobster and caviar. America has no foreign enemy to fight it is being taken down from withing by greed and corrupt politicians that support this scam military industrial complex.

  • John Vargas

    Words are easier to dish out then action. It will be another. 50 years and the government will still be dysfunctional. They still can’t figure out line item per line item the cost of the Iraq War. Our country is in big trouble if we do not apply action to our spending.

  • Mike

    Where was Thornberry when those tin soldiers, Neocon, draft dodgers Cheney/Bush were running amok drawing us into unneeded wars one after another?…. Does name Halliburton, bring back nightmares about waste, corruption and non compete sweetheart deals?

  • William McCormick

    The congress does not want a real or high quality military vehicle. Because a marine would hope into it and take out Washington D. C. at some point in his career.

  • PolicyWonk

    The entire acquisition system needs to be extirpated and replaced lock, stock, and barrel. There are many problems that are simply a matter of tradition in the armed forces. For example – they’ve been living with gold-plated solutions for as long as I can remember. It is common for design changes to be made in every stage of the acquisition process, including construction, sometimes with items that haven’t been invented yet.
    If one looks at JSF, the first thing Lockheed did was spray acquisition across the entire lower 48 to prevent any elected representative from torpedoing the project no matter how badly it was run. Not only has the planes mission profile been significantly reduced (and it still doesn’t meet even reduced mission requirements), but the price per airframe remains far above what it was initially estimated to be. And all the service branches have this problem – the Marines (EFV), Navy (LCS), and Army (FCS) have all produced unworkable lemons that cost the taxpayers many, many billions (if not trillions), of dollars over time.
    What is needed is for the requirements to be known ahead of time, what force structure is going to be required, and what threats we intend to defeat.
    The British have these problems nailed, because they use a threat analysis board comprised of civilian and military experts, who analyze threats, and then determine the force structure and weapons needed to defeat the threats. The budget is sent for approval – thereby removing their elected representatives from potentially meddling in the process – and that is the extent of their participation.
    The flag and general officers are largely left out of the picture, which removes the influence of the vendors (who may offer employment if their project is successful, no matter how lousy), and prevents the them from changing requirements mid-stream. Furthermore, it prevents redundant research and development programs from the service branches, saving even more money and time.
    Hence – the Brits get a far better deal for the amount of defense money spent than the US does.

  • Don Bacon

    I know, the Army could spend two-thirds of a billion dollars on … technical, administrative, and operation support services, and test execution services and launch augmentation. That’s the way to get a hollow force. Waste, fraud and abuse.

    Army, Nov 15, 2013

    Booz Allen Hamilton, McLean, Va., (W15P7T-14-D-A210); CACI Technologies Inc., Chantilly, Va., (W15P7T-14-D-A211); Science Applications International Corp., McLean, Va., (W15P7T-14-D-A212); D & S Consultants Inc, Eatontown, N.J., (W15P7T-14-D-A213); Scientific Research Corp., Atlanta, Ga., (W15P7T-14-D-A214); Dynamics Research Corp., Andover, Mass., (W15P7T-14-D-A215); BAE Systems Information And Electronic Systems Integration Inc., Wayne, N.J., (W15P7T-14-D-A216); Systems Technologies Inc. West Long Branch, N.J., (W15P7T-14-D-A217), were awarded a $497,000,000 cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for technical, administrative, and operation support services.

    BAE Systems Technology Solutions & Services Inc., Rockville, Md., ( W9113M-14-D-0001); Dynetics Inc., Huntsville, Ala., (W9113M-14-D-0002); ITT Exelis Inc., Herndon, Va., (W9113M-14-D-0003); Science Applications International Corp., McLean, Va., (W9113M-14-D-0004); Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., Huntsville, Ala., (W9113M-14-D-0005), were awarded a $220,000,000 multi-year, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for test execution services and launch augmentation.

    http://www.defense.gov/contracts/contract.aspx?contractid=5166