The house will be called upon this week to make a series of decisions on military procurement reform, a complicated subject on which it is easier to showboat than be serious. The system as it stands seems rife with abuses and resistant to change. Congress needs to revise rules. The problem is finding the regulatory choke-point: how to prescribe without putting the system in a straitjacket that would be worse than what exists.
Several amendments are pending to the defense authorization bill that is to be taken up beginning today. The most important is probably one by Reps. Denny Smith and Mel Levine, House chairmen of the Military Reform Caucus, to increase competition in contracting. Messrs. Smith and Levine are still negotiating some of the terms with House Armed Services Chairman Les Aspin. They want his support. As it last stood, the amendment would require the Defense Department to have a procurement plan for every major weapons system. That plan would have to list "alternative sources of supply" for the system and each of its major components. Where it could list only one source, the department would in some cases be required to develop an alternative. The letting of contracts would then have to be competitive in all but a certain percentage of cases. Which percent and exactly what is meant by competitive are among the subjects still under discussion.
The Pentagon says there is no need for this kind of regimen, that Congress is being meddlesome ("micromanaging" is the term that is used) and that much more of current contracting is competitive than the public has been led to believe. The reformers say that the Pentagon's definition of competitive is a rubber one and that genuine competition will bring down costs. They have some horror stories to prove it. We hope the reformers and Mr. Aspin can agree on an amendment that the House will pass.
A second amendment would limit items for which contractors can bill the Pentagon in the name of "overhead." No more kennel fees for executives' dogs. It's a good amendment; the Pentagon seems to need the help.
A third proposal seeks to deal with the problem of the ever-whirring revolving door. Under current law, military officers and civilian defense officials can go to work for defense contractors with whom they have been dealing. But for two years they cannot work in sales of weapons they were helping to buy when still in service. Two members, Charles Bennett and Barbara Boxer, want the rule tightened so that for two years officers and officials could not take any job with contractors over whom they had "significant procurement responsibility." The Armed Services Committee says this would keep the most senior officers and officials out of the defense industry altogether upon leaving the Pentagon. Its view is that this would create a recruitment problem, not so much for the industry as for the military and future administrations; the committee would exempt those with jurisdiction over more than one contractor.
A hard call. No one wants to make laws based on a presumption of venality on the part of people who, afterall, are serving their country. But whatever is done, it is important that a public asked to support a $300 billion defense budget have more assurance of integrity in the use of that money than it has now.