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GOP chairman aims to cut Pentagon red tape

GOP chairman aims to cut Pentagon red tape
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House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) this week will unveil his long-awaited proposals for reforming the Pentagon's buying policies.

His plans would streamline the Defense Department's purchasing bureaucracy and eliminate red tape to get cutting-edge weapons onto the battlefield faster.

The Texas lawmaker will roll out his proposal during a speech Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and introduce legislation and a report on Wednesday. 

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Rather than facing a standalone vote, the measure will likely be incorporated into the annual defense policy bill, according to committee aides.

The proposals are the result of over a year of work. Thornberry was tapped to lead the overhaul effort in the last Congress and his plans are only the first step in what committee staffers say will be a multiyear effort to revamp the Pentagon's purchasing policies.

Critics inside and outside of the Pentagon have long blasted those procedures as bloated and inefficient.

Thornberry has also warned that the military is losing its technological edge and the proposals are intended to speed up the pace of weapons innovation at the Pentagon, rather than cost-cutting, aides say.

Efforts to purchase weapons require Pentagon managers to submit six separate reports. Thornberry's proposal will consolidate those into one initial "acquisition strategy" document.

A committee staffer said the goal was for officials to spend "more time managing his or her program instead of managing the cubicles at the Pentagon."

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Those reforms will also prevent questionable weapons programs from getting "past the point where Congress can do anything about them."

“Our hope is that we achieve the same oversight and more accountability with fewer lawyers,” one aide joked at a briefing Friday about the plans.

The reforms do include measures that could help keep costs down.

Lawmakers have also long pushed for the Pentagon to use more commercial off-the-shelf items, instead of costly, custom-built systems. The proposed reforms would allow the Pentagon to more easily make such purchases if they are cost effective.

The bill would also make permanent the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, a pilot program launched in 2009 to help the department boost the number and skills of its acquisition personnel.

The fund is due to expire in 2018 but the Defense Department has pushed to renew it. 

“Everyone thinks it’s working,” an Armed Services aide said. “It’s working so let’s keep it going.”

Thornberry's proposals are likely to spark some pushback from the brass.

The reforms do not give service chiefs greater involvement in the acquisition process, changes they have loudly called for in recent years.

The bill would instead direct the service chiefs to individually report back to the committee to specify how each wants to be involved in the acquisition process.

A committee staffer said they were open to "a good discussion" on giving the chiefs a greater role, but cautioned "we’re not really sure what is the problem that they need to get fixed."

While the service chiefs could be left fuming, Pentagon leaders are likely to embrace the legislation. It incorporates some or all of six acquisition reforms the department proposed in its fiscal 2016 budget request. A seventh proposal is still under consideration by the committee, according to aides.

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Critics though are skeptical over how effective any reforms will be.

Thornberry himself has said that his proposals won't be a silver bullet, but that the bill could be an important milestone.

On Friday, aides stressed that the reform effort is likely to last for years.

“This is not a one-year thing for him,” said one staffer, calling the proposal the "tip of the spear on" workforce issues and contracting.

Fixing a system known for its dysfunction will “take time," the aide said.

"I don’t think by freeing them up it’s going to make things worse. Is it going to solve all their illnesses? Probably not. But it’s a step in the right direction,” the aide said.

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“I think it’s worth trying. Even if we can make it a little bit better, it’s worth trying,” added another aide.

Aides said they have had some “top-level” discussions with their counterparts on the Senate Armed Services Committee but that progress has been slow in the new Congress.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to mark up its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense policy bill, on April 29. 

The full House is expected to take it up in early May.

--This report was updated at 5:34 p.m.