Friday, April 24, 2009

The Volatile Mix of Best Value and Politics

After weeks of what seemed like political blackmail, Alabama Republicans Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, who have been "holding" his nomination, have finally dropped their objections after seeking assurances that Carter will not change the specifications for the KC-X tanker refueling tanker contract being sought by Northrop Grumman Corp., which would build the plane in Mobile, Ala.

This has been a troubling trend towards larger acquisition programs, as best value has gone out the window in favor of strong Congressional and Lobbying delegations exerting undue influence on the contracting process, largely in part because of economic and political pressures associated with jobs in Congressional districts. By all accounts, Boeing was unfairly evaluated according to the GAO decision on the protest, but I believe politics vice best value were to blame for the misguided attempt to award the contract to Northrop Grumman as Boeing should have won the award based on merit, and thus a best value decision.

Out of fear of protests and further delays in the program, a growing chorus of lawmakers in Congress, led by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense panel, have been lobbying Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the proposal. I have already commented on why this is a bad idea, but luckily this proposal will hopefully go nowhere as Sec. Gates has been opposed to splitting the contract.

Another large acquisition program that has received undue political influence has been the troubled VH-71 Presidential helicopter program. This program, like the KC-X tanker program, have kept the GAO busy as both these programs continued to be singled out for cost overruns, schedule delays, and targets for cancellation because of poor performance and management. However, the VH-71 program got to the point where it cost more than Air Force One, and was thus immediately a target by Congressman as either a bad decision where jobs were lost, or a good decision where jobs may be kept or expanded after Sec. Gates recommended the program be terminated:

News release from Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT):

"I support Secretary Gates' effort to reform the Defense Department's modernization programs." Lieberman said. "I am glad he agrees that many of our most essential defense systems are built in Connecticut. The Secretary's decision to cancel the VH-71 Presidential Replacement Helicopter is a wise one. It will create an opportunity for America's Presidents to continue to be flown in Sikorsky helicopters, the most reliable aircraft in the world. I am also glad that Secretary Gates has reaffirmed the importance of building a next generation strategic submarine force to replace our aging Ohio-class submarines and will continue to support the ongoing production of Virginia-class submarines. These boats are essential to the national security, and will continue to be so for many years to come." (Emphasis mine).

News release from Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY):

"I am extremely troubled by Secretary Gates' recommendation to President Obama that the VH-71 presidential helicopter program be canceled. I firmly believe Secretary Gates' recommendation is misguided and ignores the fact that the safety and security of the president requires the replacement of the current fleet of presidential helicopters, which were designed in the 1950's and built in the 1970's. While attempting to save taxpayer money, the recommendation also ignores the fact that $3 billion has already been spent on the project. Further, at a time when the government is working aggressively to create jobs, the cancellation of this project would jeopardize hundreds of jobs in upstate New York and thousands across the country.”…

… "The people of the Southern Tier are invested in the completion of this helicopter program at Lockheed Martin in Owego. We cannot simply cede to political talking points from Senator McCain and others and walk away from a program that is so critical to the safety of the president and that also has a significant economic impact.” (Emphasis mine)

I find it hard to imagine that not once in the statements were any comment of best value or what makes sense for the taxpayers and the American people. In fact it is quite the opposite, where Rep. Hinchey goes so far as to say that sunk costs are too high to stop now, and that we need to pour more money down the drain to save jobs for his constituents and Lockheed Martin. The bottom line is that Congress is continuing to harp on the fact that the acquisition system is broken, and in need of repair. Yet these same politicians are either taking a hammer to fix the system, or holding a political gun to the head of appointees until they get reassurances that their constituents, which include the powerful lobbyists of defense contractors, can be assured that they will not be “improperly” evaluated or treated poorly.

I would stress to members in Congress that these are difficult times, and that our current path of spending on defense is unsustainable. I certainly do not want people to lose their jobs, but tough decisions need to be made that affect all of us as a nation, and these bloated programs that make no sense for the future defense of our nation need a hard look to ensure that taxpayers get best value for their investments, and that the warfighters get the weapons and technology to meet the needs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. This is not about politics, but unfortunately the system has been hijacked in that direction. Congress works for us, and they need to be held accountable for decisions that are not in the best interest of our country and that are self-serving for their relatively small group of constituents.

1 comment:

  1. Well written.

    The world is so tightly wired and moving at such warp speed in communications, technology and dangerous weapons that it is extremely difficult to know when tyranny is sprouting because we get overwhelmed with the details and ignore the trends.

    Tyranny sprouts within massive government organizations that embed themselves in economies and assume a life of their own. These organizations become entrenched and difficult to change because they are wired to so much of economic and public life (a defense company in every state, a pork project tacked onto a defense appropriation.

    We target our elected officials as figureheads for our frustration, when in fact the real culprit is a big, faceless machine grinding onward, never changing, because we (the citizenry and the politician) will not bite the bullet and dismantle it. It finally collapses of its own weight (witness the Russian military industrial complex)

    Some who analyze tyranny believe the best way to avoid it is to avoid violations of the constitution. That is a bit simplistic in our era. The conundrum is detecting complex circumstances with the potential to become violations of the constitution before they become horror stories like Iraq and white elephant albatrosses -and do something about them IN ADVANCE.

    As students of history we know much of what we are experiencing today in war and politics is tied to human nature. I believe the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) must collapse before that brand of tyranny changes.

    A new brand of politics and accountability must then emerge, one that will deal from within when organizations such as the MIC self-destruct catastrophically from greed and avarice. The big issue after such events will be: "What do we put in the place of such agencies gone afoul to manage something as important and expensive as our national defense?"

    The US political system classically appoints a blue ribbon panel to study such problems spread the blame and write a detailed report no one reads. We must do better then that in the future. The impending trauma will not permit it.