Air Force General Counsel Blog The chief legal officer and chief ethics official of the Department of the Air Force


Congress and Acquisition Reform

While indirect evidence is generally good, direct evidence is invariably better. Hence, when it comes to knowing what’s on the minds of legislators, hearings may be good, but a legislator’s own remarks are better.

Enter Representative Mac Thornberry (R, TX), Vice-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Thornberry has been tapped to spearhead the next stab at acquisition reform (announced here). On Tuesday, in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rep. Thornberry discussed the topic at length. His remarks follow a recent hearing on the matter (discussed here), and are noteworthy for how he describes the current state of affairs:

Every few years since I’ve been in Congress, we have passed some legislation on acquisition reform. It may be that some of it was helpful, and some may have contributed to the problem. But looking at the whole picture, things are certainly no better – in fact the problem is in many ways worse – than it was 20 years ago. . . . In Fiscal Year 2012, DOD obligated $360 billion on federal contracts, which amounts to 10% of the entire federal budget and 52% of DOD’s total obligations. GAO testified 2 weeks ago about the trends in major acquisition systems and found that from 2008 to 2012, the change in development costs from first full estimate increased from 42% to 49% (or 7% worse). The change in total acquisition costs from first full estimate increased from 25% to 38% (or 13% worse). And the average delay in initial operating capability increased from 22 months to 27 months. It’s not just acquisitions of weapons and equipment. The Pentagon spends more on service contracts than on weapons. There it is even harder to know if taxpayers are getting good value. We do know that contract spending is down 10% in the past 5 years, but bid protests are up by 45%. It seems that there is hardly a contract award without a protest. . . .

Rep. Thornberry went on to describe what Congress plans to do to reform the current system, describing the sentiment in the following terms:

There is a bipartisan and bicameral interest in acting. . . . We were very encouraged with what Frank Kendall had to say here 10 days ago. We will be happy to sit down with him and go line-by-line through the existing regulations to thin them out and simplify. All along the way, it is, of course, not only essential to work with DOD, but also with the Services up and down the chain of command. We also need industry participation.

Simplification sounds like a pretty good idea, but do you think complexity is the source of the acquisition system’s woes? If so, what is its source: the law, the requirements, or the business process? What about the rise in bid protests? Is it a sign of a system overburdened with oversight (as one former defense official has suggested), or is it the result of an increasingly bitter fight for a shrinking pool of dollars?

Regardless of how you answer these questions, Rep. Thornberry’s remarks make one thing clear: Congress is interested in more acquisition reform, and it is looking for ideas.

Rep. Thornberry’s remarks are viewable online here and can be read in press release form here. The Congressman’s recent editorial for Real Clear Defense, which addresses the same subject matter in more pointed terms, is also available here.

Samuel Mark Borowski
Associate General Counsel (Intellectual Property)
United States Air Force