The house in its version of the defense authorization bill earlier this year included four procurement reform provisions. All were watered down in conference. Now the sponsors have inserted them again in the defense appropriations bill. The next conferees should leave them be; they deserve to be tried.
The most important of the four provisions would require increased competition in the letting of major contracts. The secretary of defense would have to ensure that "alternative sources of supply" existed for every possible major weapons system and subsystem. At varying intervals throughout the development and production of a weapon the successful bidder would have to fend off these rivals. To answer the argument that these requirements might be unwieldy and sometimes even add to costs, the secretary was given the power to waive them on up to half of the procurement budget. (The conferees on the authorization bill said that they did not even have to apply to half.)
The other provisions would:
Spell out costs for which contractors could not bill the department -- mostly such arm-around-the- shoulder items as lobbying costs, country club dues, costs of alcoholic beverages, "contributions or donations, regardless of . . . recipient," advertising costs.
Require more compilation of so-called "should-cost" data as a means of measuring and judging cost overruns.
Deal perhaps once and for all with the problem of the revolving door by forbidding any Defense Department employee or member of the armed forces with "significant responsibilities for a procurement function with respect to a contractor" from taking a job with that contractor for two years after leaving the government.
All these proposals have their defects. It is argued, for example, that the revolving-door provision would be unfair and would hamper future recruitment in both the military and upper civilian reaches of the Pentagon. As Navy Secretary John Lehman loves to point out, there are already literally shelves of procurement regulations; the greater problem may be not too few rules but too many. There is an inherent problem in trying to legislate reform. Congress, which itself creates some procurement problems, can only accomplish so much; it is pushing on a string.
But the present system seems to be so defective as to make these undoubted risks of overregulation worth running. It is a system in which the incentives all go the wrong way. The profit-and-loss, career and legal penalties for not cutting corners are greater than for cutting them. In varying ways these four provisions appear as if they may help change that calculus, and that is why they should be passed.