Will Congress Torpedo Defense Reform?

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Wasteful spending at the Pentagon is one of the most overanalyzed problems in Washington. The past thirty years have seen dozens of special taskforces and blue-ribbon commissions and congressional panels devoted to eliminating fraud and budget blowouts, and yet nothing ever seems to change. If Obama wants to prevent his own attempt at Pentagon reform from being relegated to the historical dumpster, he should be nervous about the acquisition legislation moving through Congress right now.

Both the House and Senate have passed acquisition reform bills unanimously, already an ominous sign. The bills contain some sensible ideas, such as ensuring that technology is fully developed before it’s put into production, and requiring independent cost estimates for weapons systems. But like so many previous “reforms,” these changes will only make a difference if the Pentagon and Congress opt to enforce them. Some of the more promising measures in the Senate bill—including the independent cost assessments—have already been watered down.

Finally, Senators Patty Murray of Washington (home of Boeing) and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (where Lockheed Martin manufactures the F-22 fighter jet) introduced a late amendment that would have required the Pentagon to prove that program cuts wouldn’t cause job losses—which would have effectively prevented the Defense Department from making any cuts at all. After negotiation, the amendment now only requires the Pentagon to inform Congress about job eliminations. Still, there’s a chance that negotiators could try to bolster the provision in conference, or that other key provisions will be weakened. If Obama wants a real overhaul of the way that the Pentagon does business, he’ll need to apply some political muscle.

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