Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) plans to haul Boeing executives before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to explain the 30,000 Lockheed rocket launch documents they came to possess and the $615 million they agreed to pay the U.S. government to drop civil and criminal charges.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is planning hearings into another Boeing-run program: the Army’s Future Combat Systems effort, whose cost ballooned from $91 billion in 2003 to $161 billion in 2005.
In early May, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) publicly scolded an assembly of defense executives for overcharges, fraud and other scandals. “What are you going to do about some of the constant complaints that come before the Congress?” Graham asked.
Are three high-profile Republicans — Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; McCain, who will take over the committee in January; and Graham, a rising Senate luminary — taking on the defense industry?
“Possibly,” say some defense experts. “Don’t hold your breath,” say others.
“These are the exceptions as opposed to the rule,” said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World and a former congressional staffer. If it seems like Congress may be about to get tough with the defense industry, it is only because it has been so lax about its oversight responsibility in recent years, he said.
“Occasionally oversight does occur, but not very often with this Congress,” Isaacs said.
Even if the Armed Services Committee holds hearings, there is no guarantee that meaningful reforms will result.
“Holding a hearing is not the same as changing the way money is spent,” Isaacs said.
David Williams, vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said he does expect more oversight.
“When McCain becomes chairman, we expect a ton of oversight on defense spending,” Williams said. “He’s a defense hawk” who “wants an efficient defense department. We think there will be a lot more scrutiny.”
The hearings proposed by Warner and McCain may be “the beginnings of a return to oversight, but it’s being driven by a couple of specific scandals and a couple of specific members,” said Jeremiah Gertler, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer and former Senate aide.
Tough oversight hearings would, indeed, mark “a divergence from how they have done business for the last couple of years,” said Gertler, who is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But just how reform-minded lawmakers are remains to be seen. “Will they look at the OSD [office of secretary of defense] and whether the Defense Department is somehow responsible” for cost overruns and programs gone awry, “or will they just look at defense contractors?” Gertler asked.
To Baker Spring, a longtime defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, the prospect of oversight hearings is, itself, ominous.
Events of the sort promised by Warner and McCain “have every opportunity to become show-trial hearings” where members of Congress perform for television cameras, but produce little of use, Spring said. “Maybe not, but my feeling is that Congress will come up with episodic legislation that is designed to fix this one problem so it never happens again,” but fails to address any of the broader problems of defense acquisition, he said.
Even if the hearings don’t degrade into theater, Spring said he is pessimistic. A key problem for defense is Congress itself, he said.
Lawmakers are unlikely to give up their “prerogatives on how defense programs are managed,” including a congressional penchant for stretching out buys so that more programs can be funded in a given year even if it means buying weapons at inefficient rates that ultimately push up costs, Spring said.
There does, indeed, appear to be a mood swing on Capitol Hill, but “Congress is not out to get the defense industry,” said Christopher Hellman, director of the Project on Military Spending Oversight.
“There is growing concern that the acquisition dollars just aren’t going to be there,” so Congress is less comfortable now with the waste it has long tolerated in defense acquisition, he said.
Hearings that examine the Pentagon practice of awarding defense companies bonuses even for poor performance, and the practice of lead systems integrators adding fees but no value to subcontractors’ products grow out of “a legitimate concern for how to get more value for taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
Lawmakers “are looking for better management, but it has not become adversarial or a witch hunt,” Hellman said.
When there is a disconnect between what lawmakers are saying and what they are doing, their actions usually speak louder than their words, said Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“You may see a new focus by conservatives on waste at the Pentagon,” he said. Lawmakers are being pushed in that direction by “a fiscal straight jacket of their own making.”
Between big tax cuts, a refusal to cut entitlements and rising deficits, “they almost have to look at defense in a different way,” Ornstein said.
But efforts to cut will inevitably collide with hometown interests such as preserving bases, securing contracts and protecting jobs, he said. Almost inevitably, local interests win, he said.