Panel says Pentagon relies too heavily on contractors

Defense appropriators are raising concerns about the Pentagon’s growing reliance on private contractors rather than federal employees.

At a hearing Thursday by the House Appropriations defense sub-panel, lawmakers indicated that contracting issues are going to get close attention during the consideration of the fiscal 2010 budget.

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“There is no vendetta against contracting,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who chaired the panel hearing. He said the committee sought to find the right balance between contractors and military personnel.

Lawmakers have been pushing the Pentagon to increase its acquisition and services personnel after a dwindling federal workforce at the Pentagon, combined with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opened the door to a flood of contractors. Democrats in particular have been trying to reverse the growing trend of relying on contractors.

For the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, 267,000 contractors are employed. That compares to 216,000 military personnel deployed in those two countries, according to congressional data.

The panel hearing was held a day after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report Wednesday that the Pentagon had failed to examine its use of contractors, military members and civilian employees to ensure it isn’t outsourcing inherently governmental work.

The Pentagon spent $35 billion on contracting services for about 400,000 people supporting the military in 2007, the most recent year for which information is available.

House defense appropriators on Thursday sought answers from the Army — which is the largest military service — on its number of contractors who provide services worldwide. They also posed questions about what the service is doing to oversee contractors and to grow the federal workforce.

Pentagon spending on contracting services went up by 183 percent in the last eight years, versus a 5 percent increase in military personnel salaries in the area of acquisition, according to Moran.

The Pentagon in recent years has struggled to meet growing demands with insufficient staff and has resorted to hiring more and more services contractors, such as security guards, interpreters, support contractors and even intelligence analysts. Meanwhile, the size of the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce grew by 1 percent in the last six years, according to the GAO.

In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, “we have more contract personnel ... than we have federal employees,” Moran said.

He recalled a recent visit to the Green Zone in Iraq when it seemed as if contractors were running the show. “Somehow I thought the military ran the place,” Moran said.

The number of contractors is likely to grow over the next year, given the White House plan to boost military forces in Afghanistan to clamp down on a growing insurgency.

Lt. Gen. Ross Thompson III, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, defended his service’s efforts to reform the way it manages and documents contract performance. He also said it is working to expand its own workforce.

“With service and construction contracts, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, the United States or elsewhere in the world, representing an ever-increasing percentage of our overall contract dollars, greater emphasis is rightfully being placed on their management and oversight,” Thompson told the Defense panel.

Several lawmakers reacted with skepticism.

Contracting “has not been one of the Army’s strong suits,” countered Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a senior member of the Defense sub-panel.

The Army plans to increase the contracting workforce by 400 military members and about 1,000 civilians, Thompson said. However, those numbers “require significant time to hire and train new personnel, but it is being worked” out, he added. This year the Army is planning to hire 131 military personnel and 347 civilian personnel, he said.

“The increase in workforce size will be deliberate over the next three years,” Thompson assured the panel.

Currently, the Army has 125,000 outside contractors providing a range of services, Thompson acknowledged.