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McCaskill pulls out stops to protect 'wartime contracting' part of defense bill

In Washington

5:06 pm on Wed, 12.05.12

WASHINGTON – Making her pitch on TV shows and landing a seat on the joint Senate-House conference committee, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is mounting a campaign to preserve wartime contracting provisions in the big defense bill.

“This is solid, bipartisan reform that will save real money,” McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters Wednesday. She argued that, by creating “a whole new framework for contracting oversight in wartime,” her provisions “can save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

That relatively non-controversial segment of the $631 billion defense authorization bill would seem safe, considering that the amendment – championed by McCaskill and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. – was adopted by voice vote (with no opposition expressed) and the Senate voted 98-0 to pass the overall defense bill.

The amendment aims to revamp several contracting practices, including a ban on “excessive” pass-through contracts and charges to the government. It would also tighten oversight of contracts.

But the bill's House version doesn’t include the wartime contracting provisions. And House Armed Services Committee chairman U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. (an ally of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood – whom McCaskill defeated in her Senate re-election race this fall) was not pleased last December when McCaskill accused his panel of pushing for earmarks.

Claire McCaskill
Claire McCaskill

“I don’t think he’s very fond of me,” McCaskill said of McKeon. “We did have a disagreement about whether or not the House Republicans had tried to earmark the defense authorization bill last year,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that personalities and things like positions on earmarks are not going to come into play here.”

Another potential threat may be more worrisome: McCaskill suspects that some wartime contractors might quietly try to exert influence to get the provisions dropped from the conference report. “I would think that – unless contractors get to [conferees] – which I would not put past them – this is just solid, good government reform that I would think could enjoy a lot of bipartisan support,” she said.

Asked if she has any evidence that contractors were working against her provisions, McCaskill told reporters she “would be surprised if there wasn’t some of that. I think they kind of knew they would be barking up the wrong tree if they tried in the Senate. I’ve been here long enough to be cynical about it, so I’m going to assume that they’re going to try to waylay these provisions. So we’re going to be watching it very carefully.”

McCaskill, along with other Senate Armed Services members, will be part of the conference committee that will negotiate with the House conferees this month about which provisions of the two bills to accept or reject. Once a deal is worked out, both the House and Senate vote on the compromise legislation.

“I certainly would be upset if this was something that was not agreed to between the House and the Senate as we work toward final passage,” McCaskill said.

But in addition to behind-the-scenes efforts to urge Senate Armed Services chairman U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to stand firm on the wartime contracting part of the bill, McCaskill is also going public. On Tuesday evening, she appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show to push for the contracting reforms.

"I hope that all your listeners who know the kind of money we’ve wasted on war profiteering and abuse of contracts in the wars – that they stay on the members of Congress to make sure it stays in the bill,” McCaskill told Maddow, a liberal who has written a book about the expansion of the U.S. military.

The Missouri senator also appeared Wednesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show, although she talked mostly about the ongoing effort to avoid the fiscal cliff. She predicted that Congress would approve a deal either this month or at the beginning of January. 

McCaskill told reporters Wednesday that the White House has been generally supportive of her efforts at contracting reform, and she has not "gotten a lot of 'pushback' from the Pentagon." However, the administration's Office of Management and Budget has objected to several other provisions of the defense bill, holding out the threat of a veto if the objections aren’t met.

Among many other things, the Senate defense bill sends a message that lawmakers want to step up the pace of withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan. In a bipartisan vote, the Senate endorsed the timetable to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but also pressed for an accelerated pace, while not saying how that would be achieved.

The F/A-18.
The F/A-18.

The Senate defense bill also authorizes the purchase of 26 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and 12 EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft for a total of more than $3 billion. Both aircraft are assembled at the Boeing Corp. plant in Hazelwood, where about 4,000 workers help support the production lines.

One item to be discussed in conference is the Senate bill’s additional $60 million (about $15 million more than the House bill) in “advance procurement funds” for the F/A-18 program. Earlier this year, McCaskill said those funds “would go toward filling in the gap on our [aircraft] carriers because the [F-35] Joint Strike Fighter is so far over schedule and, frankly, so far over budget.”

However, the White House budget office, in a statement Thursday threatening a possible veto related to other provisions of the Senate defense bill, said the administration had not asked for the additional Super Hornet funds.

“The administration objects to the unrequested authorizations for the advance procurement of additional F/A-18E/F Navy fighter aircraft and for unneeded upgrades to the M-1 Abrams tank,” said the OMB. “Funding these items in this fiscally constrained environment would divert scarce resources away from more important defense programs.”

McCaskill: Reforms could save 'billions'

In the session with reporters, McCaskill cited highlights of her wartime contracting provisions that she contends could save billions of dollars in wasted or misspent funds. She said those provisions include:

  • A new framework “that will require, before contracts are entered into, that we know which [federal] agency is responsible for that contract. Agencies have to take primary responsibility for the contract.” In the past, the senator said, auditors encountered “a circular firing squad that no one was hitting anyone . . . an abundance of finger-pointing after some of the gross, incompetence of contracting in Iraq, where the State Department was pointing at that Defense Department, that was pointing at USAID.”
  • Requiring answers to key questions before contracts are signed, such as: “Is this project one that can be maintained or sustained by the host country?” And: “Not only is this contract legal, but are there inherent risks with privatizing this particular function?”
  • Strengthening the hand of the special inspector generals who investigate contract problems, allowing them “to have oversight into a much broader portfolio.”
  • “It avoids pass-through contracts, where we have had a hard time holding contractors responsible because they were subcontracting out the work, and you couldn’t ‘pull the thread’ to get back to the source of the problem.” Pass-through contracts will be barred.

“There’s going to be much more transparency in all of the process,” McCaskill said, “and more methodology to be able to ‘claw back’ money when a contractor has been paid inappropriately for fraud, mismanagement or a failure to perform.”

But first, the provisions have to make it into the conference report, be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law.

“We now have to make sure that these are part of the final passage of the bill,” said McCaskill. “That’s why I want to continue to stress the importance of this.”

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