New House Armed Services Committee chair vows DoD reform agenda, starting with acquisition

By the reckoning of the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, defense procurement reform is near the top of the priorities list of a national security apparatus that’s also trying to figure out how to deal with a new iteration of Islamic extremism, a resurgent Russia and the U.S. political leadership’s impasse over arbitrary caps on the defense budget.

But Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who became chairman this month after having spent the past year leading the committee’s efforts on acquisition reform, is in no rush to fix procurement all at once. While the system is in dire need of repair, another attempt to force change from Capitol Hill would prove not only counterproductive, but dangerous, he said Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)
In a speech outlining his committee’s priorities for the 114th Congress, Thornberry said he hopes to have some acquisition changes ready for a vote no later than the end of this year. But whatever adjustments Congress churns out of the effort should be part of a slow, steady march toward a better procurement system, not a single legislative landmark that purports to have fixed DoD acquisition once and for all, he said.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of very valuable input from people inside the system, from industry and from people who have looked at this over the years. I haven’t found anyone that thinks everything’s just fine, but what we have found is people who say that acquisition reform has been tried before and it usually just makes things worse. ‘Why do you think you’re going to make it better?’ That’s the sort of skepticism we hear,” Thornberry said. “We have an unfortunate tendency to fix organizational problems with more organization. So there is not going to be a 2,000-page bill that solves acquisition. That bill will never exist. Nobody’s that smart. What we will do is, first, do no harm. Secondly, we’ll try to make some things a little better and then we’ll make some more things better the next year and keep after it year after year as long as I have this job.”

Thornberry said he expects to begin releasing some initial proposals for acquisition reform this spring and then ask for feedback before trying to insert them into the 2016 defense authorization bill.

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He said that even though the changes will be incremental, the deliberative pace should not be interpreted to mean that he’s not worried about the performance of the acquisition system as it exists today.

“The system is so gummed up that it’s a wonder that anything ever comes out the other end,” he said. “But to have a military that is both strong and agile means that we can’t tolerate the delays and cost overruns that have plagued our procurement system.”

Thornberry did not offer any indications as to which specific aspects of defense acquisition he’ll try to tackle first, other than to say he is in full agreement with the Pentagon’s own acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, that policymakers should begin by trying to deconstruct previous generations of reform legislation and identify provisions that have added bureaucratic burdens to the system without any clear benefit.

Kendall’s office has spent roughly the last year compiling an internal wish list of legal provisions it would like Congress to repeal from earlier attempts to reform the system. Many of those provisions, the department believes, now serve as impediments to the end goal of buying products and services quickly, cheaply and fairly. The list is fairly well developed by now, Thornberry said, and he and his staff have been active participants in drawing it up.

“There are some things on the list that Secretary Kendall can thin out himself and there are some things that we’ll need to do together,” he said. “That process is going well, but we’ll need to repeal some laws. I don’t know how far we can go before we see how much the market can bear. That’s part of the reason we’re not going to just throw out a large package and try to pass it. I want to hear feedback. It’s not just about the bureaucracy and the way the organization is set up, it’s about who has the authority and whether you can hold them accountable for the exercise of that authority. That’s the goal we’ve got to move toward.”

Thornberry calls for accountability at DoD

Accountability was a major theme of Thornberry’s Tuesday address. He said he has come to believe that one reason many systems take so long to develop and cost so much is that there are too many individuals in the acquisition chain who can make small decisions that add to cost and schedule. Added together over a period of years, those decisions can take a system off the rails. But in the end, it’s impossible under the current system to figure out whether anyone in particular is to blame, he said.

“It goes without saying that there are many good people in the Department of Defense who are doing good work with good results,” he said. “But too many of them are captured — or have their work captured —by the accumulation of regulations and bureaucratic processes imposed by Congress and administrations over the years. This issue has to be a major focus of our oversight. That oversight will be fair, aggressive and thorough. As the people’s voice on national security, it’s exactly what the framers intended.”

As one measure to beat back unhelpful bureaucratic processes, Thornberry pledged that the Armed Services Committee would take a serious look at Congress’ own role in creating the byzantine requirements the Defense Department must plod through each year to ensure it’s in compliance with this or that provision of law Congress has layered on over the decades.

For example, he said, the committee will undertake a serious examination of the number of reports Congress demands from DoD —a workload Capitol Hill makes larger and more complicated with each iteration of the annual defense bill. The list of reporting requirements grows each year and never shrinks because lawmakers, as of now, have almost no reason to repeal the information demands they’ve heaped on in previous years, irrespective of whether the reports are useful decision making tools.

“Of course, this is not a new problem,” Thornberry said. “President Lincoln once asked for a report on a newly-developed rifle. He looked at the thick binder and said, ‘If I send a man to buy a horse for me, I expect him to tell me his points, not how many hairs there are in his tail.’ And Congress contributes to the problem of too much effort for too little results. So we’re going to be looking at ourselves too. But history tells us that Congress has an indispensable role in reforming the Pentagon. It will not happen without us and, as long as I hold this job, defense reform will be a priority.”

Although he is enthusiastically collaborating with DoD’s own leaders on some topics like acquisition reform, Thornberry made clear that he believed Congress as a whole needs to take a more assertive and sometimes more adversarial role toward the executive branch in the nation’s overall defense decision-making apparatus.

House Armed Services Committee won’t be a ‘rubber stamp’

His committee, he said, will not be a “rubber stamp” for the Pentagon’s budget and policy proposals.

Already, DoD has tried and failed to make its case for several major proposals that were dead on Capitol Hill almost as soon as they arrived, like closing military bases and shutting down weapons systems. But from Thornberry’s point of view, that’s exactly the kind of tension that should exist between the executive and legislative branches. And though military leaders have publicly bemoaned those votes, legislators don’t owe any apologies, he said.

He offered a vigorous defense for congressional opposition to some of DoD’s recent cost-saving proposals, arguing that members are actually looking out for the long- term interest of the country.

So, Thornberry argued, even though the Army has been begging Congress for years to let it stop buying M-1 tanks because it has many more than it can currently imagine putting to use, in the Congress’ reasoned judgment, it’s been worth the extra expense to keep the assembly line running because there’s no telling what it would take to start it up again. And the mandate that the Air Force hold onto the A- 10 planes it desperately wants to mothball was a good idea, since that airframe is being used against Islamic State fighters right now. And closing bases is a bad idea because rifle ranges —if they were shut down in a BRAC round — would be extremely difficult and expensive to reconstitute if there was a military need for those facilities in the future.

“In all of those instances, Congress disagreed with the administration’s requests, and that’s exactly how the founding fathers intended our system to work,” he said.

“Sometimes the Pentagon is penny wise and pound foolish. Sometimes the Pentagon can be parochial too and sometimes an administration tries to cut military spending to put money in other parts of the budget and sometimes their priorities are just wrong. It was Congress that forced the Pentagon to buy the Predator. The Air Force didn’t want it; pilots don’t really like pilot-less aircraft. But I don’t know many people who would reverse that decision today.”

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