Panel calls on supercommittee to look at wartime waste, fraud

The congressional supercommittee will have failed if it opts against looking for ways to implement some of the recommendations being offered by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, former Rep. Christopher Shays said Wednesday.

The Connecticut Republican, a 2012 Senate candidate, first said the special congressional debt panel would be a “failure” if it did not include some of the commission’s 15 recommendations for improving Washington’s use of contractors during foreign operations.

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But Shays later stepped back from that comment, noting the supercommittee faces a daunting task.

The bipartisan panel should be deemed a failure if it doesn’t take a long, hard look at the contracting commission’s study, which was released at the same briefing, he said.

Shays is one of the wartime contracting panel’s co-chairmen and is seeking the Senate seat that will be vacated by the retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Ct.) next year.

The supercommittee should examine the commission’s final report because, although some of its recommendations would require new federal spending, it would generate savings overall, Shays and other members told reporters.

The congressionally created wartime contracting panel, populated by former senior lawmakers and federal officials, concluded Washington lost $31 billion to $60 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan to “waste and fraud.”

That range is from a total of $206 billion that will have been spent by the end of this fiscal year on contractors during the two nearly decade-long conflicts, according to commissioners.

Commission member Dov Zakheim, Pentagon comptroller under the George W. Bush administration, said he pegs that figure at “much closer to $60 billion.”

“Much of the contingency contract waste and fraud could have been avoided,” according to the commission’s report. “Unless changes are made, continued waste and fraud will undercut the effectiveness of money spent in future operations.”

Even as it appears the Obama administration has placed Washington on a course to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “there is still time to make a difference in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Shays said.

“The way forward demands reform,” Shays said. “Denial and delays ... should not even be an option.”

The commission found that the departments of Defense and State, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have become “over-reliant on contractors for contingency operations.”

“In Afghanistan, for instance, carrying out stabilization-and-reconstruction projects in insurgent-contested areas with contractor employees has led to deaths, delays and waste,” the commission stated.

What’s more, commissioners told reporters that even as the panel, lawmakers and executive branch officials agree on that point, those agencies remain unable to manage battlefield contractors.

Among the commission’s 15 recommendations are several specifically for lawmakers.

“Congress should provide or re-allocate resources for contingency contracting reform,” the report states.

Another recommendation states lawmakers should “enact legislation requiring regular assessment and reporting of agencies’ progress in implementing reform recommendations.”

Without such regular check-ups, commissioners told reporters, the nation should expect “more of the same” waste and fraud in other foreign operations.

Zakheim pointed to Libya as a first example of where problems might develop.

“They’re now talking about reconstructing Libya,” the former top Pentagon budgeter said. “Who do you think is going to do that?”

Answering his own question, Zakheim said that work would be done by private contractors overseen by a small cadre of federal acquisition officials.

The commission also recommends changes within the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom and USAID by elevating and giving more power to those positions that oversee contingency contracting. It also suggests doing the same for officials on the Joint Staff who do the same.

The final report calls on those entities to establish a group of acquisition and contractor oversight experts who can rapidly deploy to manage contractors.

The use of private sector contractors for some functions that should be done by government officials should be ended, the panel concluded.

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The commission also is calling for the creation of two new positions:

- An official who would serve on both the National Security Council and at the Office of Management and Budget to “provide oversight and strategic direction.”

- A permanent inspector general that would exclusively focus on contingency contracting.

The commission has been in “constant communication” with House and Senate Armed Services Committee staffers, Shays said.

While the supercommittee could enact some of the panel’s recommendations, many appear to fall under the congressional purview of defense authorization. Those two panels are tasked each year with crafting that legislation.

The House already has passed its 2012 Pentagon authorization bill, but the Senate has yet to take up a committee-approved version.

The commission’s recommendations could be debated in coming weeks when members and staffers from the two Armed Services committees meet in conference to hammer out a final version.