Commentary: Contracting Oversight in the 112th Congress

With the GOP winning control of the House on Nov. 2, Republican members of House oversight committees are poised to determine how the lower chamber of Congress uses its investigatory powers for the next two years. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the likely chairman-to-be of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has released what his website calls "a blueprint" for oversight of the executive branch, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) released a document shortly after the elections calling for greater congressional oversight overall. With plenty of contracting issues that remain unexamined or in need of further investigation, what will this shift mean for congressional oversight of government contracting in the next Congress?

During the Bush administration, as dollars spent on contracting doubled between 2001 and 2008 and became more concentrated in a relative handful of companies, Democrats began scrutinizing the federal contracting process. In 2005, while still in the minority, Democrats began using the Senate Democratic Policy Committee (DPC) to begin investigating whistleblower allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse in contracting in Iraq. After Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, they began showering oversight attention on contracting by creating new oversight panels in both chambers and creating the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC).

While Republicans will have no control over the CWC, which will wrap up its work and provide final recommendations within the next six months, or the contracting panel in the House, which submitted its final recommendations in March, questions remain as to the House’s commitment to continue the work on contracting reform that has occurred over the past four years. Indeed, several contracting issues have come up just within the past few months that warrant continued congressional scrutiny.

In early November, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet – the only fifth-generation fighter platform the Pentagon will have since Congress terminated funding for continued F-22 acquisitions – would experience additional delays and cost increases. Writing in his influential military reporting blog War is Boring, David Axe notes that just this spring, DOD reorganized the F-35 program, delayed the start of full production, and added $3 billion to development costs. Now the Pentagon is pushing full production back another year and adding another $5 billion for research and development. Proper oversight would require that Congress call Lockheed Martin executives, along with top Pentagon brass, up to Capitol Hill to testify about the company's continued failures to meet cost and schedule demands and DOD's failures to keep the project on course.

Additionally, continued problems with contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan demand further congressional attention. In June, Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), the current chair of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Oversight Committee, released a report titled Warlord, Inc. The report, which incorporates a six-month investigation spurred by an expose conducted by The Nation magazine, exposes the extortion and corruption surrounding DOD's "outsourcing of security on the supply chain in Afghanistan to questionable providers, including warlords." In short, the report found that DOD "designed a contract that put responsibility for the security of vital U.S. supplies on contractors and their unaccountable security providers." This arrangement, which "has fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others" – read: the Taliban – not only conflicts with DOD and congressional rules and regulations, but likely undermines "the U.S. strategy for achieving its goals in Afghanistan." Without pressure from Congress resulting from investigations like these, DOD risks unwittingly funding the very groups our country has sent our armed forces to fight.

In Iraq, the State Department is about to assume all responsibility for overseeing contractors, as the military continues its withdrawal of most combat troops. State estimates that it will have to watch over some 25,000 to 26,000 private security contractors (PSCs). These PSCs will continue to provide standing and moving security, and the training of Iraqi police and soldiers, but they will also have to supply quick-reaction combat teams, route clearance, recovery of wounded personnel, removal of damaged vehicles, and the detection and disposal of explosive devices. This may create a nightmare scenario where the State Department, due to lack of experience and too few oversight personnel, can't adequately oversee contractors tasked with new and difficult duties to perform. Congress needs to pick up the CWC's vigorous oversight of the State Department and ensure that the agency is adequately overseeing contractors in Iraq.

In his September report criticizing Democratic oversight of the executive branch and other issues, Issa ostensibly lays out his plan of action for the next Congress. While scrutiny of the executive branch is surely the duty and prerogative of Congress, Issa’s report fails to mention oversight of federal contracting, nor does it address any of the issues discussed here.

Of course, even if the House fails to confront contracting issues, the Senate will likely continue to do so. Indeed, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), chair of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, recently released an "aggressive" agenda for the next Congress. According to Robert Brodsky of Government Executive, McCaskill plans to hold hearings on "Afghanistan reconstruction projects and is conducting investigations of Energy Department procurements, public relations contracts, and acquisitions connected to congressional earmarks." McCaskill, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the CWC, is determined to "cause squeamish moments for both industry leaders and federal agencies." Without similar support from the House, the oversight of contracting issues may be detrimentally affected in the next Congress.

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