Thornberry Announces Acquisition Reform Legislation

House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

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House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

House Armed Services Committee (HASC) chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) will file a bill on Wednesday with a slew of proposals meant to smooth out the acquisition process – from helping put the right personnel in place, to simplifying the chain of decision-making, to thinning out regulations and reporting requirements.

Thornberry said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Monday morning that since his acquisition reform effort launched 16 months ago, he has gathered more than a thousand ideas from Defense Department employees, defense contractors, the commercial sector and more.

All the ideas will go into a database for possible consideration down the road, and the first tranche of ideas were compiled into a bill Thornberry will file on Wednesday that will eventually become part of the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization bill. Included in the bill are six of the seven legislative proposals the Pentagon submitted, HASC spokesman Claude Chafin told USNI News, with the seventh still under consideration.

The chairman said he hopes to receive feedback on the ideas in the bill leading up to the markup of the defense bill on April 29.

Thornberry said the ideas fall into four main categories: people, acquisition strategy, simplified decision-making and thinning out regulations.

In the people category, Thornberry said his bill will remove obstacles that keep top military talent from serving in the acquisition workforce. Particularly, he said he wanted to make it easier to move between the acquisition force and the operational force.

“We would also require training on the commercial market, including commercial market research to help close that gap between industry and government,” he said.
“To be the world’s fastest incorporator of commercial technology, there has to be a lot of interaction between industry and government, and so we require there to be mandatory ethics training on that acquisition-related interaction.”

Each program would be required to develop a formal, written acquisition strategy at its beginning, which could be updated as needed. The strategy would include the appropriate type of contract for that particular good or service, whether multiyear procurement would be appropriation, how to mitigate risk in the program, what incentives to offer industry and more – thereby consolidating at least six documents currently required of new programs.

Thornberry said his bill would simplify the chain of command for acquisition decisions, keeping decision-making to a single person when possible and keeping it as low in the chain as possible.

“A number of requirements on Milestone A and Milestone B are going to move from legal certification to just a decision,” he said.
“And as a recovering lawyer, I can attest that the fewer lawyers that are involved in the process, the smoother it’s probably going to go.”

He said the bill would also raise the dollar threshold for certain rules denoting when a higher-headquarter authority has to sign off on a contract decision, or when the service secretary or eve defense secretary must sign off. He said the goal was to make it easier for base commanders and program managers “to just get things done” without having to seek high-level approval.

And lastly, he said the bill will reduce the regulatory burden on the acquisition community by eliminating reporting requirements and other paperwork where feasible.

“Over and over again I hear that program managers and industry are forced to manage the process rather than manage the program.”

Thornberry admitted there was some risk in eliminating reporting requirements, many of which were added by Congress as additional oversight after some program veered off course.

He explained, though, that in any acquisition system someone will mess up – someone will make an uninformed decision, someone will act based on motivations not in the Pentagon’s best interests, someone will be corrupt, and so on. One way to deal with that is to impose burdensome regulations on all program managers to reduce the chances of a bad outcome. What he would rather do, though, is create a more transparent system that places less of a burden on program managers doing the right thing but is able to catch mistakes – accidental or otherwise – early on while they’re still fixable.

Thornberry said this bill would not fix everything but that it’s a good start and that “reform must be one of our top priorities” for him and his Senate counterpart Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) going forward.

In addition to that commitment from Capitol Hill, “few secretaries of defense have known the Pentagon better than Secretary [Ash] Carter,” he said. Along with highly experienced deputy secretary Bob Work and acquisition chief Frank Kendall, as well as service officials, “never before have all the stars been so favorably aligned” to achieve meaningful reform, he said.

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