These days, everyone in Washington is a defense reformer.
Shocked—shocked—at the edifice they have helped create over the past decade, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), offer new reform legislation: the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009.
Meanwhile, top Pentagon managers, who during the Clinton administration presided over serious decay in our forces, promise the munificence of their reform experience. And new to the game—and exercising an important principle the others studiously ignore—President Barack Obama has ordered the Office of Management and Budget, not the Pentagon, to draw up new rules to govern Defense Department contracting.
To understand which reform ideas are real and which are purely cosmetic, it is necessary to understand the problems that plague our defenses.
The defense budget is now larger than at any point since 1946, but the Army has fewer combat divisions than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer war-fighting ships and the Air Force has fewer fighter and attack aircraft.
The Pentagon refuses to tell Congress and the public how it actually spends the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated to it each year, for the simple reason that it doesn't know. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn't even know if the money is spent, but trust me, it's gone. Decades of reports from the Department of Defense inspector general and Government Accountability Office painfully document the Pentagon's refusal to allow financial accountability to complicate how it prefers to spend money.
And here come Levin and McCain with their new bill to fix it all. Having been atop the Senate Armed Services Committee for many years, they have written scores of statutes to create what now exists in the Pentagon. It is a structure that GAO describes as bringing cost overruns that are higher than ever before.
Reading the fine print of the Levin-McCain bill provides useful insight. It calls for more competition in contracting but rushes to permit Pentagon bureaucrats to waive requirements whenever they decide such requirements would impair their own vision of "national security objectives." The bill would create a new "cost czar" to improve price estimates, but he is not given the authority to impose his analysis on hostile weapons system advocates. Elsewhere, the bill relies on DOD to monitor itself and report back to Congress. Having done so fantastically well up to now, DOD is to fill out its own report card.
None of this will even begin to address our shrinking, aging, less effective, ever more expensive military.
Worse, cosmetic reform diverts Washington from desperately needed changes.
No failed system can be fixed if it cannot be measured accurately. A crash program to make Pentagon spending accountable is essential. It sounds boring, but no real reform is possible without this first step.
The Pentagon also lacks the sense that anyone serious is looking over its shoulder. Both in Congress and the office of the secretary of defense, people need to relearn the lost art of oversight. A congressional hearing with ignorant committee members reading questions, sometimes in a huffy tone of voice, is not oversight. Neither are policy wonk types in top Pentagon offices twiddling with organizational charts. The entrenched bureaucrats smirk as they turn such people into "mushrooms"—by keeping them in the dark and feeding them cow manure.
Obama offers a glimmer of hope. Aware that broken agencies cannot be relied on to reform themselves, he has called on an independent actor, OMB, to rewrite DOD's acquisition rules. Understanding the principle, he might want to expand on it and require outsiders to force DOD into financial accountability and to monitor the DOD managers as they make—or fail to make—decisions bringing change.
Levin and McCain can help, too, but first they will have to drop the pretense that the Pentagon and Congress don't need adult supervision.