Pentagon contract reform: A decades-old conversation

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President Obama told us last week that "the days of giving defense contractors a blank check are over.” Well, maybe. Reforming Pentagon contracting is hardly a new idea, as evidenced by a presentation on Defense reform unearthed by PaperTrail.

It’s no surprise Obama picked on the Pentagon. The Defense Department is consistently responsible for more than half of the government’s contracting. That share grew over the course of the Bush administration to 74 percent in fiscal year 2008. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and growth in the base Pentagon budget led to a doubling of Pentagon contracting from around $170 billion in fiscal year 1999 to $394 billion in fiscal year 2008, according to Pentagon data and the Federal Procurement Data System (both figures are in 2008 dollars).

The question of how to change the system has bedeviled presidents, members of Congress and a dedicated cadre of reformers for years. In fact, PaperTrail uncovered a Star Wars-themed PowerPoint presentation (is it a surprise that defense procurement wonks dig the Trilogy?) describing three decades of attempts to reform the way the Defense Department buys weapons. The presentation is unattributed, but has been circulating among defense acquisition experts. The upshot: our government has been around the reform block more than a few times.

“It’s no wonder the acquisition process is in such a shambles, given all the silly, trivial changes made over the years,” said Tom Christie, a former Pentagon senior official, who was in charge of testing and evaluating weapons during part of the Bush administration.

As the Center made clear in Broken Government and news accounts of Obama’s speech widely noted, of the 95 weapons programs that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed in 2007, costs grew by nearly $300 billion over the initial estimates, and weapons deliveries were behind schedule by an average of 21 months. The GAO testified before Congress in September 2008 that since fiscal year 2000, “DOD significantly increased the number of major defense acquisition programs and its overall investment in them. During this same time period, the performance of the DOD portfolio has gotten worse.”