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Action Tougher Than Oversight

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/tierney.jpgRep. John Tierney (D-Mass)(WDCpix)

In three Congressional hearings this spring, Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) carefully laid out the case against the Pentagon’s long-range missile defense program.

Tierney, the chairman of the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee on Government Reform, pointed out that missile defense program costs billions, has nothing to do with the war on terrorism and, well, doesn’t work in stopping a long-range missile. So when the House debated this year’s Pentagon spending bill, Tierney proposed an amendment to cut spending on missile defense.

Nationalsecurity_7939.jpg
Nationalsecurity_7939.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The amendment failed badly, 292-122. “I’m not surprised it didn’t pass,” Tierney said in an interview, “It’s something I’ve proposed year after year.”

Since the Democrats took Congress last year and started controlling the hearings held by congressional committees, Pentagon critics like Tierney have had a platform to point out the billions of dollars going to weapons spending and Iraq war contracting.

But will all the oversight lead to any reform? Significant cuts in missile defense are out in the House’s Pentagon spending bill that passed two weeks ago. Included in the bill, however, are amendments changing how the Pentagon awards wartime and weapons contracts. If parts of the amendments can make their way into the final bill, reformers can claim a victory.

But the final House legislation, as well as the defense bill windings its way through the Senate, illustrates the difference between grilling the Pentagon and actually changing it.

“It’s still the military-industrial complex,” Tierney said, referring to the issue first raised by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “There are jobs related to these [weapons] programs and enough confusion about whether [the programs] work.”

The Pentagon’s budget has always made up a large portion of government spending. But defense spending could more than double between the start and finish of the Bush administration. In 2001, the Pentagon budget was $302 billion, plus $17 billion in emergency funding for the war on terror. The budget that President George W. Bush sent to Congress in February calls for a record $515 billion — not including the $165 billion requested in emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2008 Defense Authorization Act passed by the House does little to rein in the president’s request. Billion-dollar weapons systems like missile defense, the Army’s future combat systems and the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet — none of which are used in Iraq and Afghanistan — remain largely intact. Both the House and Senate bill, which passed out of the Armed Services Committee last month, call for yet more scrutiny of these systems. But not cuts.

The potential for reform could be contained in a series of amendments added at the last minute by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). Instead of tackling specific contracts, the amendments try to change how weapons and war contracts are rewarded and audited. “These could make a huge difference,” said Tierney, talking about his colleague’s amendments.

While the defense spending bill was being debated on the House floor, Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight on Government Reform was holding a hearing on a Pentagon audit of Iraq war contracting. The Pentagon’s inspector general looked at $8.2 billion in wartime contracting. Of that, 95 percent, or $7.8 billion, was not adhering to federal contracting rules.

That afternoon, Waxman offered a “Clean Contracting Amendment” to the defense spending bill. It passed by a voice vote. The amendment’s many provisions confront the problems described in both the Pentagon’s Iraq contracting audit and a GAO report that scrutinized $295 billion in cost overruns for weapons programs dependent on private contractors.

These amendments seek to curb the number of contracts carried out by only one company and contain contracts not bid competitively. In addition, the number of Pentagon personnel who audit contracts would increase.

They also include whistleblower protections for contractor employees, encouraging them to report waste and abuse to Congress or Pentagon auditors. And a federal database would be available to the public that would show all defense contracts, including the federal contracting history of each company.

Pentagon watchdogs say that, if passed, the database provision would increase the transparency of controversial contractors like Blackwater, that sometimes use aliases in bidding for contracts. And putting a cap on sole-source contracts could be a check on contracting giants like Lockheed Martin, which now can’t account for billions of dollars in weapons systems that the company alone is supposed to make.

“Waxman’s got all these little things that together could be a big change from the status quo,” said Craig Jennings, legislative director at OMB Watch, a public-interest group that tracks government spending.

There is bipartisan support on the need for more auditors. “There have been extraordinary pressures placed on a shrinking workforce that has dealt with an increasing reliance on private contractors,” Tom Davis (R-Va,), the oversight committee’s top Republican, wrote in an email.

There is also strong support in the Senate to increase the number of Pentagon auditors, especially after the Pentagon inspector general reported that the current defense budget is, effectively, too big to audit. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has even proposed an independent Pentagon office to assess the true cost of defense contracts.

But Davis and other Republicans are skeptical about checks on sole-source and no-bid contracts that they say could add unnecessary bureaucratic layers. The federal contractor database is also in jeopardy.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has proposed the Senate version of a database for defense contractors, as well as all government contracts. But Maria Speiser, spokeswoman for McCaskill, said in an interview that the Senate was now limiting the database’s availability to federal employees, due to concerns over publishing confidential information on companies.

Speiser predicts that the Senate defense bill probably won’t be debated, amended and voted on until after the July 4 recess. After the Senate passes a bill, the two chambers must agree on the legislation to send to President George W. Bush in the closed-door conference committee process. “We see a lot of changes now,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “But we’ll see what comes out of conference.”

The legislation that passed the House shows that there is more than just talk about Pentagon waste and abuse. The final bill could well produce greater contracting transparency. But whether Congress is Republican or Democratic, the rapid escalation of this “military-industrial complex” during the Bush administration might well be difficult to reverse.

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