Every year for the last decade, Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) has introduced legislation to block Pentagon officials from going to work for defense contractors they once supervised. This year, many lawmakers say it is certain to become law.
"Everyone wants to vote for procurement reform this year," a Bennett aide said.
After months of headlines about military cost overruns, golfing junkets, dog boarding fees, $600 toilet seats, defective engines and fraudulent time cards, many members of Congress now depict themselves as crusaders against military waste, churning out press releases and waving old Pentagon audits at the slightest opportunity.
But there is also a serious bipartisan effort afoot to do something about defense contract abuses. On Wednesday, Bennett and two House colleagues unveiled a bill to stop improper defense billings, hours after Sens. David Pryor (D-Ark.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) held a separate news conference to publicize their own sweeping procurement-revision measure.
"In the past, people thought that if you questioned military procurement, you'd be labeled a communist sympathizer," Pryor said. "Now, if you go to a farm rally or senior citizen center and you jump on the contractors and the Pentagon, you get your biggest round of applause."
Others are skeptical about the prospects for congressional action. "I've heard various members of Congress claim they're going to do something for the last four years," said Dina Rasor, director of the nonprofit Project on Military Procurement. "I can count the ones who follow through on two hands.
"They can't sit there and be pious and shocked and outraged; they vote the money every year regardless of the results they get," she said.
A similar verdict comes from Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the House oversight panel that uncovered improper billings by General Dynamics Corp. "Congress has failed on this issue," he said. "We've got to hit some people in the pocketbook. The system today is like a piece of Swiss cheese: the holes are everywhere."
But many critics say more than legislative tinkering is needed. The problems, they argue, stem from the Pentagon's lax enforcement of existing rules, the Justice Department's reluctance to prosecute major companies and the Reagan administration's four-year military buildup.
"The system is awash with money," said Gordon Adams, an analyst with the private Defense Budget Project. "As long as the money keeps coming in, the message goes out to contractors that the sky's the limit. You're going to frustrate procurement reform if you keep throwing money at contractors."
The contractors, in turn, are adept at throwing money at Congress. The top 20 defense firms donated $3.6 million to congressional and presidential campaigns last year, double the level of their 1980 contributions.
"Defense contractors are a very important piece of political geography for members of Congress," Adams said. "They have employes in their districts, they make campaign contributions, they lobby through their Washington offices. Congress is acutely sensitive to this."
The Pentagon also has responded to the new public climate, most recently by imposing new rules to restrict the kinds of public relations and advertising costs that contractors can charge to the public.
But the Pentagon's recent attempt to force contractors to swear that their billings are proper underscores the difficulty of tightening the rules. The Pentagon later "clarified" the rules to require only a good-faith certification by company executives, prompting charges that it had caved in to industry pressure.
Now the contractors, backed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), are pressing to weaken the rule still further. "It is not realistic to expect a senior corporate official to have reviewed the very large number of items which may constitute a request for overhead reimbursement," Goldwater said in a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. " . . . . It will be difficult to hold such a person directly accountable for any cost submitted."
Bennett's bill, cosponsored by Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), aims to close the revolving door through which 2,200 retired Pentagon officials have gone to work for defense contractors in recent years. It would bar contractors from hiring any Pentagon employe who had significant involvement with their contracts for two years after the employe leaves government. Companies that violate the rules would be subject to civil fines of $100,000 or more. Both company executives and the former employe also could face criminal penalties of up to a year in prison.
Ompal S. Chauhan, an Air Force branch chief in Wichita, Kan., told Bennett's Armed Services subcommittee last month that many Pentagon officials start planning for such a job switch two or three years before they retire.
"The manager becomes increasingly soft on the contractor," Chauhan said. "To get the job, he must know someone in the contractor's hierarchy. He must do things which his future employers like and prove his worthiness for his new job . . . . He begins to think more about his future employer than his current one. Loyalties become confused."
Chauhan said he had been blocked from obtaining information on Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Maverick missile by a lieutenant colonel who later went to work for Hughes. He cited six other Pentagon officials supervising Hughes, five overseeing Boeing Co. and two in charge of General Dynamics who later were hired by those contractors.
The other measure being pushed by Bennett and Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Ala.), both members of the Armed Services Committee, would restrict Pentagon payments for such overhead costs as entertainment, membership dues, lobbying and promotional giveaways. They hope the committee, a longtime burial ground for military reform, will embrace the measure.
Pryor and Grassley, meanwhile, plan to amend the defense authorization bill on the Senate floor. Their package would force contractors to pay repair costs for defective equipment, finance cheaper acquisition of spare parts and require bidding for all Pentagon contracts unless Congress grants specific exceptions. More than 90 percent of Pentagon contracts now are awarded without competition.
Pryor, who wants stiffer reforms in the defense bill than those written by Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), said his ultimate goal is to shift military procurement to a civilian agency.
The defense industry, Pryor said, "is beating our socks off. The problem is much, much deeper than we had realized."