Floor Statement on Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009

Mr. President, I rise to express my strong support for the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act, introduced by the two leading military experts in the United States Senate today – Senators Carl Levin and John McCain.

This rapid passage, after years of delay and inaction, has occurred in part because of the strong support demonstrated by President Obama.  The President, in public remarks recently on this issue, reaffirmed his strong commitment to be a wise steward of the American taxpayer’s dollars.  That commitment to fiscal prudence and wise budgeting must apply equally to the Pentagon as it does any other Cabinet Department.  Those who argue that it is acceptable to tolerate some waste and inefficiency in our military budgets because we are talking about our national security have it wrong.  It is precisely because our security is at stake that we must ensure, as Secretary Gates has said, every dollar wasted on cost overruns or inefficient contracting is a dollar that cannot be spent on our men and women in service and making sure they have the right tools to succeed.

Defense acquisition reform is one of those perennial Washington issues that everyone talks about, but nobody ever seems to get around to solving.   Many of my colleagues, in the debate over the past two days, have cited the GAO report last year chronicling $296 billion in cumulative cost overruns in the 96 major acquisition programs currently maintained by the Pentagon.  But I would like to quote from another report:

“public confidence in the effectiveness of the defense acquisition system has been shaken by a spate of 'horror stories' – overpriced spare parts, test deficiencies, and cost and schedule overruns.  Unwelcome at any time, such stories are particularly unsettling when the Administration and Congress are seeking ways to deal with record budget deficits."

Mr. President, this other report was not published this year or last year.  I am quoting from the legendary Packard Report, published in 1986, which offered a scathing indictment of the defense acquisition process.  Unfortunately, little seems to have changed in the intervening twenty three years, and in some respects, our procurement system has only deteriorated. 

Year after year, we hear of cost overruns and schedule delays that cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars.  Yet we never seem to muster the political will to tackle the problem and crack down on the systemic flaws that produce these chronic poor results.  So I am very pleased that this legislation has moved from introduction to Committee markup to final Senate passage in a matter of months – after years of reports and blue ribbon commission of studies emphasizing the need for fundamental reform of the process by which the Pentagon purchases the weapons systems used every day by our brave men and women.

The Levin-McCain bill on the floor today seeks to address key deficiencies in the early stages of the acquisition process for a weapons system, where many of the problems first materialize.  The legislation would support the Pentagon’s efforts to rebuild its procurement workforce, which has been dismantled over the past fifteen years and contracted out.  It would establish an independent office in the Pentagon to assess initial cost estimates provided for weapons systems, to ensure that rose-colored cost predictions are no longer permitted to pass muster.  Finally, the bill reinforces so-called Nunn-McCurdy provisions to ensure that programs that go seriously off track are terminated unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

Mr. President, I was also proud to serve as a co-sponsor on a series of important amendments offered by my colleague from Missouri, Senator McCaskill.  I applaud the Senator’s single-minded determination to root out waste, fraud and abuse in our procurement and contracting systems, and I am very pleased to collaborate with her on these important amendments, all of which have been accepted by voice vote.  Briefly, the amendments ensure that our war fighters in the field, as represented by the Combatant Commanders, provide input to the weapons acquisition process; offer an opportunity for the key Pentagon civilian official in charge of acquisition to sign off on all acquisition program decisions made – something that oddly does not yet occur on a regular basis; and strengthen safeguards to ensure competitive prototyping for all major weapons systems before final purchase decisions are made.

What matters, at the end of the day, is not just the dollars we save.  All of us have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the interests of our young men and women who serve our nation.  We cannot continue paying excess dollars on out of control weapons acquisition programs while we shortchange our troops on time at home from extended deployments and the full range of benefits they and their families deserve.  That is at the heart of why the Levin-McCain acquisition reform legislation must be enacted into law by Memorial Day, as called for by the President.

Mr. President, I yield the floor;