Rep. Thornberry Leads Bipartisan Push to Fix Pentagon Procurement

By Sandra I. Erwin

In the era of deeply divided government, everyone still agrees that there are fundamental flaws in how the Pentagon buys weapons systems.

Beyond that, there is little consensus on how to fix a procurement system that delivers weapons way over budget and behind schedule. Congress passed sweeping legislation in 2009 to reform weapon acquisitions, but it is clear that the system is still not working as it should, says Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Thornberry is vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee and said to be in line to succeed current Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon who is retiring from Congress.

Thornberry is overseeing three major reviews of defense policy areas that the committee considers problematic: The security clearance process, excessive Pentagon overhead costs and the weapons procurement system.

“This is pretty unprecedented,” Thornberry tells National Defense in a recent interview. “There are Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, plus [officials] in the Obama administration and in industry who have all agreed to work together on this.”

All parties have committed to help flick through giant stacks of procurement regulations and laws, and identify the points of failure. The task is daunting, at best, Thornberry says. “It doesn't mean everyone is going to agree on every proposal. But having everybody on the same page in this day and age is significant.”

The goal is to identify the most pressing issues that need reform and include them in next year’s defense authorization bill. Congress is going to have to fight the urge to write massive pieces of legislation that keep piling up over existing laws and don’t really fix the root causes of military procurement failures, says Thornberry.

“We are determined to not just pass a new law, or create another oversight office or new regulations,” he says. “We are going to take time to understand what the problems are and why previous efforts have not been successful.”

Informal surveys have confirmed what Thornberry and other lawmakers already suspected: Reforms will never work unless procurement managers in the mid-level bureaucracy are incentivized to make smart decisions and are also held accountable for those decisions. Thornberry would support giving program managers more flexibility to make decisions, but he would also expect them to be held accountable when they make bad ones.

“We have to look at it not just from the top down, but at the program manager level, and understand the incentives for certain decisions to be made,” Thornberry says. “If you can develop the right incentives with accountability attached, then I think we've got a chance.”

One reason why program costs have soared is that the Pentagon has bulked up its bureaucracy to oversee an overwhelmingly complex set of regulations built up over decades. “We've had several reform efforts where we just keep adding on top and nothing ever goes away. … We have to thin out and simplify the acquisition laws and regulations.”

Bloated procurement offices fuel wasteful spending, he says. There are too many people in the acquisition bureaucracy who do not add value to the system, he says. “That has contributed to overruns and delays.”

A team of staffers from House Armed Services and the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will review current rules, “line by line,” Thornberry says. “That is an approach that everyone agrees is a good beginning.”

The question he most often gets asked, Thornberry says, is why bother doing this when so many previous attempts at reform have foundered.

“I haven't found anybody who says the current system is working well,” he says. “What I hear is skepticism. We've tried this many times. Why is this going to be any different?”

His response is that the Pentagon has to do things differently in an era of flat budgets. “We have to find a way to get more defense value out of the money we spend.”

Lawmakers, too, need to do a better job overseeing military programs, says Thornberry. “Congress has to ask tougher questions early in a program” before costs spiral out of control, he says. “We can help impart some discipline in to the requirements process. It's not just asking the Pentagon to clean up its act. Us in Congress have to do better.”

But Thornberry cautions against setting expectations too high. “We can't solve all the problems in the acquisition process. We're going to have to narrow the focus, try to fix a few things and then keep working,” he says, “I don't have any illusions that there's some silver bullet out there.”

As part of the fact-finding process, Thornberry’s staff will be reaching out to industry associations for the private sector’s perspective.

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, agrees that acquisition reform should be a priority. “There are some real savings to be had there if we are willing to step up and make the personnel and acquisition changes that would help get us there,” he says during a breakfast meeting with reporters.

Smith points out that one of the committee’s most knowledgeable experts on the military acquisition process, Rep. Robert Andrews, is retiring from Congress. But other committee members will be stepping up to fill that void. Democratic Reps. Derek Kilmer and Scott Peters will be “taking an interest in acquisition reform,” Smith says.

Thornberry’s review comes at a time of growing anxiety at the Defense Department about how to rein in acquisition program costs and deliver systems in a timely fashion.

Some of that angst was captured in the testimony of William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition

“I come from a community that desperately wants to make a difference,” he tells members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing last month. “I come from a community that wants to invent a clever way to do contracting so we finish a development contract on time,” says LaPlante. “I'm under no illusions of the challenges in the system. We've all seen the successes; we've all seen the misfires.”

Topics: Government Policy, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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