Our Broken Procurement System

I can remember back, even in the “go-go” defense spending days of an administration which proved a matinee cowboy actor could get elected President, when this writer was a Navy Supply Corps officer. In my “beans, bullets, and black oil” portfolio came the responsibility of competitive bidding in procurement from private industry.  By statute, regulation, and policy, we were to shop the marketplace for the best deal for mission effectiveness and value to the American taxpayer.

Yes, I could execute contracts on a sole-source, non-competitive basis with an important caveat. Rest assured, when fleet inspectors and auditors stepped aboard, I had better have my “sole source” file ready, and be able to defend each and every time I did not get three competitive bids. I was the accountable officer. It was the taxpayer’s dollar. Whatever job security my commission provided, abuse of procurement rules could undo. War and national crises involve the need for more expediency, and I expect an increased use of sole-source contracts to “get the job done right in a hurry.”  That said, in the fifteen-plus years since I retired, the glut of sole-source contracts has grown, involving now over $115,200,000,000 in Fiscal Year 2012. One hundred fifteen BILLION dollars. That’s real money.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s 2009 lawyerly stated opposition to non-competitive procurement contracts except where totally necessary, the Pentagon procurement gravy train appears to have merrily chugged along from the reckless Bush-Cheney years. While former Vice President Dick Cheney’s old employer of Halliburton and associated firms no longer dominate, defense behemoths Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon top the list today. The public procurement system is still broken, and is in need of repair.

contractingBy its very nature, government contracting is bureaucratic. My auditing pals out there will call it “internal controls.”  Federal procurement rules are voluminous. It is, after all, a very big deal. It’s not Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)’s Tea Party “kitchen table” budgeting, along with how many clients her hubby, sashaying Missus Marcus, “prayed away the gay” for today.  In a superpower and the world’s largest economy, scribbling figures on the back of an envelope or Washington cocktail napkin just doesn’t cut it. Even fiscal hawk Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)’s vaunted “frameworks” don’t add up. I wonder if the debt screamers ever bought a house with a mortgage.  Facts of life.

I am not naive. We’re not talking about “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and her first trip to Sen. David “Diaper Boy” Vitter (R-La.)’s Looziana Nawlins whorehouse. The challenge of getting needed material and services where and when they are needed has long been with us, and is not going away. The need for effective procurement internal controls hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo bird, last seen in 1662.  Somebody needs to put a big foot down. It’s currently attached to the guy at the big desk in the Oval Office. Former President Harry S. Truman (D) had on his desk a sign reading, “The buck stops here.”

Come to think of it, one could imagine the Dodo bird as a product of a major defense contractor, with uncontrolled cost overruns. Still couldn’t fly.

For all of conservatives ranting about the glories of competition and the so-called “free market,” government procurement does have rules, often learned the hard way. A government “by and for the People” must insist on value for money, no matter how the Pentagon brass or corporate executives howl. It takes leadership. The rules are there. Somebody has to enforce them.