Acquisition Reform Agenda from New House Armed Services Chairman

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

By Jared Serbu   Federal News Radio          January 21, 2015.

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.

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.

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.”


For help with Government Contracting: contact your nearest Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). Funded through Cooperative Agreements between the U.S. Department of Defense and state and local governments/institutions, PTACs provide free and low-cost assistance in virtually all areas of government contracting.