Coburn takes aim again at travel system

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has introduced legislation this week that continues his long-standing effort to nix the Pentagon’s new Defense Travel System (DTS).

Coburn tried unsuccessfully to kill the system, being developed by Northrop Grumman, when the Senate voted last year on the 2006 defense appropriations bill. His amendment failed 32-65.

Now the conservative lawmaker has introduced an amendment to the 2007 defense authorization bill that would stop money from being used for the development and operation of the Web-based travel system. So far, he has no co-sponsors.

The system is comparable to a travel-booking site such as Orbitz and Expedia but is more complex to satisfy the Pentagon’s travel needs and rules. It is an end-to-end electronic system intended to integrate all of the Pentagon’s travel functions, from authorization through ticket purchase and accounting.

The system was begun in 1998 and was supposed to be fully deployed by 2002, but the date has slipped to the end of this year. It is in the final phase of a six-year contract that expires on Sept. 30.

With that deadline in mind, some travel-industry groups are pressing for the cancellation of the DTS and want it to be put out for competition under the General Services Administration’s e-Travel Service, a source said. Others argue that the DTS has cost taxpayers $474 million, more than $200 million above original projections, is underused and does not consistently find the lowest airfare.

Since Coburn’s first attempt late last fall, Northrop Grumman has campaigned to educate Congress about the system’s benefits and progress.

“We are very proud of the work we are doing on DTS,” said Darryl Fraser, head of Northrop Grumman’s Washington Mission Systems operations.

“This is a program that is needed. The Department of Defense [DoD] has a very important mission to do around the world,” and the system helps the department not to be bogged down with travel preparations, he added.

“It helps to save money, and it works,” Fraser said, adding that 43,000 people used the system Tuesday. The DTS would save the government at least $56 million a year, Fraser argued.

He also said the system is uniquely designed to tie into the Pentagon’s financial systems.

DTS supporters say it is hard to define the cheapest fare. A fare may look cheaper but would have a series of restrictions. “We pull back the fares the way the DoD travel guidelines tell us to,” Fraser said.

The system will be used at most large bases, offices and other DoD facilities by October. The Pentagon estimates that it will be fully deployed with an estimated total development and production cost of approximately $474 million. Of that, the contract for design, development and deployment is worth $264 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in January.

Coburn’s office said his amendment could be debated as early as today or tomorrow. The senator faces powerful opposition from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who favor the continuation of the system.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) came to the system’s defense last year when Coburn introduced his first amendment. In language for the 2007 defense authorization bill, the panel wrote that it was encouraged by the progress made on the development and pressed for more use of the system to get more savings.

Coburn is not alone in his attempt to eliminate the system. Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) introduced an amendment to the 2007 defense appropriations bill to block any 2007 funds from being spent on the DTS. Chocola’s amendment did not pass.