Top Lawmakers Plan to Change Goldwater-Nichols Law


Congress needs to review and revise the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which dictated major changes to the U.S. military’s acquisition system, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted that it has been nearly three decades since the landmark legislation was passed, and said it was time for a “thorough and complete review” of the organizational structures that were put in place.

“Overall Goldwater-Nichols was a great success, we will all admit,” he said Oct. 20 during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “But times have changed over the last 30 years. The challenges have changed, a lot of things have changed. And so we’re committed to starting … hearings that review Goldwater-Nichols so that we can make the changes that are necessary.”

He later told reporters that the hearings would begin after the “fight” over federal spending levels between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans was resolved. Current funding for federal agencies is set to expire on Dec. 11, but it is unclear whether a budget agreement can be reached by that time.

In an effort to improve cooperation among the services, Goldwater-Nichols made several major changes to the way the Defense Department was structured, most notably by transferring power from the services to the office of the secretary of defense and the combatant commanders.

Congress should examine “whether the structures we set up fit the way the world is changing,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters after the panel discussion. Specifically, lawmakers ought to look at “whether the pendulum has not swung too far towards a centralized acquisition system [by] taking the services out of it.”

McCain said there are “many” personnel policies that need to be examined as part of the review of Goldwater-Nichols.

“For example, cyber was not there 30 years ago,” he noted. “We’re going to have to address how we can train and equip people in the cyber area. There are many things that happened in the last 30 years that require adjustments to a fundamentally fine piece of legislation.”

During the panel discussion, McCain and Thornberry discussed the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes several key acquisition reforms.

“We’ve got to do better at being more agile in fielding technology, quicker in responding to threats and … getting more value for the taxpayer dollars,” Thornberry said. “So we have a number of … fundamental reforms [in the NDAA] thinning out some of the regulations” and discouraging concurrency in weapon system development and procurement.

The legislation would also give more acquisition authority to the service chiefs, McCain said.

A presidential veto would thwart the reform efforts that are included in the NDAA, the lawmakers noted.

“We are committed on a bipartisan basis to doing much more work in the future but… even that first step doesn’t happen if the bill doesn’t become law,” Thornberry said.

The impetus for President Barack Obama’s veto threat is a dispute between the White House and Republican members of Congress over how much money should be put in the Defense Department’s overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund versus the base budget. GOP lawmakers are trying to get around federal budget caps by including an additional $38 billion in OCO funds. Obama has instead proposed eliminating the budget caps and increasing base spending for both defense and non-defense agencies.

McCain said Obama’s veto threat is misplaced because the NDAA is a policy bill, not an appropriations bill.

“If he has a problem with the level of appropriations, then it seems to me that fight should be with the appropriators and that aspect of funding,” he said. “This [NDAA] is a big bill of … reforms, and so it seems to me he’s picked the wrong target.”

Both McCain and Thornberry blasted Obama for threatening to torpedo the bill.

“If the president decides to veto this, then it seems to me that he is placing a higher priority over this concern and opposition to the funding budgetary mechanism than he is over the defense of the country,” McCain said.

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement, Acquisition Reform

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