Focus of one watchdog group regarding upcoming defense authorization bill

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), one of the longest-running external good-government groups, has a list of items its watching for in the 2025 NDAA.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), one of the longest-running external good-government groups, has a list of items its watching for in the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act. A House committee has already passed one version. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talks with POGO Public Policy Director Liz Hempowicz.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin So this markup, everybody in town is kind of looking at it. It hasn’t gone to the full house yet. And then there’s the Senate and blah, blah, blah. Long way to go. But what did you notice from the POGO standpoint that should be watched in? What is the first glimpse we’re getting of a possible NDAA?

Liz Hempowicz Sure. We’ve got a couple of things that we’re keeping an eye on. The first is what Congress is doing with a couple wasteful weapons systems. You know, the bread and butter for Pogo. And so, what they’re doing with regards to the F-35 program and the constellation for both emblematic of some of the systemic issues that we care most about at the Pentagon. And we’re also looking at if policymakers can make good on efforts to make it harder for defense contractors to fleece taxpayers in contracting negotiations, and whether a small group of dedicated, bipartisan members can lead Congress into a more responsible way of dealing with budget needs from services and combatant commands by getting rid of the unfunded priorities list. And then last but not least, we’re looking at the impact of recent investigations by Pogo and others and what they’re going to have on policymakers and how they address critical housing quality issues that so many military families are facing right now without sufficient recourse.

Tom Temin All right. And, you know, the United States, as a country faces a rising threat militarily from several places around the world. And does the NDAA seem to address the issue of the fact that some rearmament is really necessary if it can be done in some reasonable fashion?

Liz Hempowicz Yeah. You know, I think that’s exactly the reason why we’re so focused on two of these issues. One, the wasteful weapon systems that we do find ourselves in, you know, decades long contracting issues with. And then also some of those root systemic issues with contracting and procurement that allow us to get into these longstanding, challenging issues with weapons programs that end up, you know, we’re sold a bill of goods that they don’t end up being, and then they can’t meet our readiness needs. And so, then we’re out trillions of billions of dollars. We you know, there’s not a lot of accountability. And we’re not even meeting our readiness needs. And so, there’s no accountability, there’s no readiness. And so that’s really why we care about issues like the F-35, which Congress is now finally cutting back some of the buy on and is delaying delivery on a couple of them, about ten, I think, this year. And basically, they’re doing that because they’re having so many issues with this program that we have now been underway for almost three decades, definitely over 20 years. And performance. We’ve got a fleet wide mission capable rate of only 30%. When we’re talking about the full mission capable rate of F-35s, they’re assigned to combat squadrons. We’re talking only 48%. That’s less than half of them are able to meet our mission needs. And we are 20 years into the program. And so, I’m glad we’re finally cutting back. But we just approved these F-35s for this full rate production. Even though we don’t have the accountability we need, we have all of these issues still, the top testing official at the Pentagon has still not. We don’t want the classified version, of course, of their testing report, but the unclassified version leaves so much to the imagination when there’s all these testing issues. And so, we’ve got both ends of the spectrum here. But yes, we are talking about incredible readiness needs. We have threats coming out of nowhere and ones that we can see. But until we get a handle on procurement as well as who is making decisions and what information they’re making those decisions based off of, which is some of the issue that we’re seeing with all of these things, from housing to these weapons acquisition, is who’s making decisions at the Pentagon, what policymakers are overseeing those decisions, and what is the case, sure, that they’re making those decisions on.

Tom Temin And you mentioned housing, which is a troop issue, a troop quality of life and a troop readiness issue. What does the NDAA that you’ve seen gleaning through this thousands of pages? And what are they saying about it?

Liz Hempowicz Not enough, not enough, especially if you’re going to build this. You know, I think the official title of the bill is The Quality-of-Life Bill instead of the NDAA this year. And I think you let’s take a step back. You know, one of the issues that POGO has uncovered here is that so many of the issues with military housing have come up because the system was privatized. And so, there’s this accountability vacuum, and it leaves service members and their families to suffer from long term exposure to things like toxic mold. That’s what Pogo just uncovered in our latest reporting. And so, because it’s been privatized, it’s hard. But they don’t have recourse. They don’t also have information to who can make this better for them. And often, you know, they’re stuck in this bureaucratic system of back and forth and back and forth. And we profiled some service members who ended up leaving the services because it was too difficult to try to deal with these issues that were affecting them in their families. And so, when we look at this issue of toxic more than the privatized military housing, we’ve got some efforts in the House. NDAA, led by Representative Jacobs, to limit funds for the Secretary to use for travel. And. Till the department has implemented this complaint database that they are supposed to have implemented years ago. That’s supposed to help families kind of understand what they are walking into and just arm them with a little bit of information. The bill also requires a couple studies to better understand the problem, and there are a couple other initiatives here and there to deal with it. But again, it’s not widespread. The problem will not be fixed, but there are members certainly also trying to address kind of the specific issue here that would at least allow service members to fight back on some of these issues with the quality of the housing standards not meeting just basic standards. They would have to meet anywhere else just because we’re talking about military housing.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Liz Hempowicz, its director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. You mentioned a, you know, specific program which has been, as you pointed out, troublesome, the F-35 program. But in the 800 series of clauses in the NDAA, that’s where they talk about procurement reform. Anything stand out to you that they’re actually reforming?

Liz Hempowicz Well, let’s say reforming in a bad way. There are some provisions in the House NDAA that would make it a little bit harder for the Pentagon to, again, would not give them the information they need to make smart spending decisions and smart contracting decisions. And so instead of focusing on those bad provisions, though, let’s focus on the amendments that the House Rules Committee will hear to strip those provisions out. And so Representative Schakowsky has an amendment to remove both section 811 and the House bill. And 812 in the House bill. Those are the two ones we’re talking about, and they talk about the definitions of commercial items and what information needs to be provided, essentially to contracting officials at the Pentagon so that they’re dealing with, you know, certified information, data that they can use that is reasonable and comes in before they make contracting decisions, which, you know, common sense would lead people to assume is what’s happening now. Unfortunately, it is not often folks at the Pentagon receive this information after they’ve made contracting decisions, after they’ve awarded contracts. And all of a sudden it turns out that we are now contracting for much different items than we had initially anticipated, and we’re paying a lot more.

Tom Temin Right. So really, it’s a cost. Affordability is still the fundamental issue, even as we need to recapitalize the military because their air force, for example, is talking about retiring hundreds of aircraft. And, you know, how do you lessen the threat of China with 500 or 1000 fewer aircraft?

Liz Hempowicz Well, you certainly don’t do it by making it harder to kind of track accountability. And when it comes to different items in the supply chain for all of our different weapons systems, let’s take the F-35 program, for example. There’s thousands of suppliers from around the world involved in that F-35 supply chain. And when we’re talking about these contracting issues and procurement issues, to oversimplify it, these weak standards for those technical terms like commercial items and certified cost pricing data, means that every one of those contractors along the way has an opportunity to price gouge the military. And lawmakers keep making it easier and easier for them to do so. So, like these provisions that are in the House bill that would require less information to go to the Pentagon before they make these contracting decisions. We need those provisions taken out. And that’s why we are very much in favor of Representative Schakowsky. Amendments to remove those sections 811 and 812 in the House bill. I believe those are also in the Senate and their efforts in the Senate to get those taken out. But as you know, the Senate is a little bit less transparent with their bill language and what they’re doing before they mark it up in the Senate Armed Services Committee. And so, a lot of that is going on behind the scenes over there.

Tom Temin So a long way to go. Yet before there’s anything finalized to vote on even.

Liz Hempowicz Yes, the NDAA is taken, you know, takes longer and longer every year. And so hopefully who knows who knows how long it will go this year? Hopefully not as long as last year.

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