Military contractors, accustomed to warm treatment to begin with, have a new sun in their balmy sky. It is Defense News, a weekly publication that reports on weapons sales, procurement policies, Pentagon programs and similar issues of concern to a gluttonous industry that feasts off the $827 million a day that is the current military budget.
The preview issue is 48 pages, 17 of which are full-page ads from major military contractors. An upbeat layout is splashed with color. A sprightly written article appears on Robert Komer, a former Pentagon official whose nickname is "Blowtorch" -- for his "zesty reports on the progress of the Vietnam War."
Defense News is fittingly defensive in this week's editorial. It discusses "the heavy glop of fresh procurement legislation" and the "maze of new regulations" now being proposed in Congress. The "rush to reform" military contractors means that critics would "pour gasoline on its timbers." Procurement reform, Defense News concludes, "has become a tidal wave."
Beneath all these metaphors, which must set an overrun record in a single editorial, is the message of defensiveness that the military contractors find soothing. This is the industry whose spectacular run of fraud, waste and overcharges prompted Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa conservative, to say that here is "the new generation of welfare queens." It's the industry, unstanched, that has five major firms paying no federal taxes from 1981 to 1984. In 1985, it had nine out of 10 of the largest contractors under criminal investigation.
Now the war industry wants to stop the war on its honor. Defense News roars that an "erroneous, widespread perception" exists "that the defense industry is run by ripoff artists who care little for their country." Now why would anyone think that?
No one doubts that the industry has cared for its country -- as long as the country has tame people in the Senate and House who rarely cancel costly or flawed programs or who seldom doubt the wisdom of the Pentagon, which, in turn, rarely doubts the wisdom of the contractors.
The politicians currently in a "rush to reform" are not the chronic Pentagon-haters. Instead, they are senators like Barry Goldwater, Sam Nunn and other brothers in arms who, after years of agreeableness, finally were pushed into embarrassment by the excesses. It was actually the publicity about the excesses -- the $7,622 coffeemakers and the $439 hammers -- that created the climate of reform. Semireform may be the truer word. Is anything strong to be expected from the Reagan Commission on Defense Management, the 14-member group appointed five months ago? "We've got to get away from an adversary approach," says its chairman, David Packard, in Defense News.
What adversary approach is he talking about? Was the General Accounting Office being adversarial when it reported that only 6 percent of the Pentagon military contracts are fully competitive? Was that the tone of the Pentagon's inspector general, who said of the cost scams: "I think these are not just the random mistakes that happened because some accounting system went haywire. Overpricing is a series of problems of a systematic nature in the way we buy spare parts." Ernest Fitzgerald, the scrupulous Pentagon spending analyst, was being factual, not adversarial, when he extended the inspector general's thought: "The ripoff of taxpayers on the big items -- weapons, engines, aircraft -- is as bad as on spare" parts.
The procurement reform legislation that Defense News labels "heavy glop" is no more than light syrup. Bills are in congressional committees that would correct the kinds of abuses that anger everyone but the comatose: revolving-door employment deals, noncompetitive contracts, tabs for liquor, parties and pet care.
The reformers now being heard represent the efficiency wing of Pentagon supporters, the better-bang-for-the-buck school. It wants to keep the bangs banging. The money saved from the expensive Pentagon hammers won't be diverted to hammers to build houses for the homeless. It will be kept within the military budget to continue the rearmament goals begun five years ago. An efficient military is the goal, not a reduced one, even though the effects of military spending on the economy continue to be devastating.
The strongest procurement legislation in Congress could be passed -- it won't be -- and still nothing in it would change the reality that the current level of military spending generates unemployment, is inflationary and takes money from education, health care, housing and the other strengths of civilian life.
The $302 billion military budget for this year -- $827 million a day -- could be monitored by Price Waterhouse guaranteeing that every nickel is carefully spent. All that would change is that the nation is risking nuclear annihilation and going bankrupt with maximum efficiency.