WASHINGTON — Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican serving as ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, unveiled proposed legislation Thursday for a package of reforms aimed at the Pentagon.
Over the past five years, Thornberry has introduced a series of rolling reforms to how the Defense Department does business, but the fiscal 2021 effort will be his last; Thornberry is not running for reelection. The goal of releasing the language before discussions begin on the National Defense Authorization Act is to solicit feedback from experts, the department and industry on the pros and cons of the ideas.
“Nobody’s smart enough to know all the implications of moving things around in the system. So put it out there, let people have their shot at it, make adjustments as appropriate,” Thornberry told reporters Thursday while also unveiling a personnel reform effort.
The situation is more complicated this year, with Congress out until May 1 because of the new coronavirus outbreak. HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has given guidance to members to prepare their legislative ideas ahead of time so that as soon as the committee reconvenes, they can begin the process of discussing the NDAA.
Thornberry called the decision “absolutely right” and also expressed his hope that this NDAA process will go more smoothly than last year’s, the first of a Democratic-controlled House.
“I think there is a renewed resolve, certainly by both Adam and me, to confine our bill to our issues, and not allow it to be a vehicle for lots of other wish lists that are not able to make it through” other committees, Thornberry said. “I think having gone through last year, everybody has a better understanding of what is and is not doable with a Democratic house and a Republican Senate and a Republican president. And so I do think that the aperture of issues is narrower this year than it was last year."
Included in the reform package are six key areas:
Creation of a comprehensive sustainment strategy: This proposal would require the Department of Defense to review all sustainment strategies in the department in order to “synchronize and streamline” those efforts not just within individual programs or services but departmentwide. An independent advisory panel, modeled after the Section 809 Panel from several years earlier, would make recommendations.
Quarterly industry briefings for Capitol Hill: The proposal would require the Pentagon prepare a quarterly briefing on weaknesses in the defense-industrial base and what is being done to address them.
Streamlining Title 10 acquisition authority: Thornberry admitted this issue isn’t one that “gets a lot of people excited,” but noted that” streamlining and simplifying the code is a big deal to enable some of these nontraditional, and small and mid-sized companies, to do business with DoD.”
Reform to the requirements process: Thornberry wants one assessments of where the requirements process is successful, and another where it may be too complicated; one assessment would be done by the Pentagon, while the other would be completed by an external group. Thornberry said this work is being done in consultation with Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is in charge of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.
Locking in reform efforts: While Thornberry backs the “night court” efforts of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, he wants to make sure the DoD doesn’t roll them back in the future. To that end, the proposal sets “monetary savings goals for the Department, annual reporting, and requires true reform savings and not deferrals.”
Enforcing reform efforts: In addition, Thornberry wants to keep the Pentagon’s feet to the fire over the fact the department has not delivered three reports it is required to by previous NDAA language. Those reports — an initial implementation plan on a Defense Civilian Training Corps, the establishment of an extramural center of excellence for acquisition policy, and the submission of a national strategy for the National Technology and Industrial Base that actually dates back to language from the FY14 NDAA — must be delivered by Oct. 1 of this year, or Thornberry’s language would restrict funding for the department as punishment.
“It always concerns me a lot if DoD or any other agency ignores the law,” Thornberry said. “I believe very strongly that when we put something into law, when it's signed into law by the President, then it is the law of the U.S. And you may like it or you may not like it, but you got to follow it.”
“Sometimes it’s institutional sluggishness. Sometimes it’s outright opposition: ‘We don’t like it.’ Sometimes it’s just, you know, we gave them too many things to do and some things fall through the cracks,” he added. “My bottom line is, like it or not, if it’s the law, you got to do it. And if they don’t do it, then we got to figure out some way to bring it to their attention with enough muscle behind it that they decide to comply.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.