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The role of Congress in the Pentagon scandal

THE Defense Department procurement scandal is made to order for politicians - a chance for public hearings, press conferences, much ``viewing with alarm,'' and the inevitable suggestions for reform of the Pentagon. Congress need not wait for the end of the investigation or months of study and testimony to begin the reform process. There are several things it could do now - all involving the role of Congress in the process. The sad truth is that Congress must accept a large share of the responsibility for the current state of affairs.

One of the uglier aspects of the Pentagon investigation is the profiteering by those who place personal self-interest above United States national security. Unfortunately, when it comes to placing special interests above the national interests, Congress sets a very poor example.

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For years, Congress has refused to allow closure of unneeded military bases, despite a potential annual $2 billion to $5 billion savings. This year, after considerable pressure, both the House and Senate passed bills to allow closing of obsolete bases. However, a base closing bill cannot become law unless differences between the House and Senate versions are worked out in a conference committee, and such a committee has not yet even been formed.

Another example of congressional interference lies in its practice of forcing the Pentagon to buy unwanted or unneeded equipment. What's forgotten are the legitimate needs that remain unmet because of this selfishness.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, who headed the president's Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management two years ago, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: ``I think that ... there is another devastating effect of this disgraceful congressional practice of funding programs for equipment that's not really needed by our military forces. It is using taxpayers' money specifically for the personal benefit of the members of Congress, and it is therefore fundamentally unethical behavior. And how can the Congress expect ethical behavior from the Department of Defense and the defense industry when it sets such a bad example of ethical behavior at the top?''

There are other examples of congressional interference in the procurement process. By executive order, federal agencies (including the military) must bid jobs to see if they can be done cheaper and better by the private sector. Most experts agree that more government services can and should be contracted out to the private sector, which frequently can provide that service or product more efficiently without putting US security at risk. But congressmen team up with local government employees and even local base commanders to short circuit the process. The result: A program to save money is thwarted to save local government jobs.

Then there are ``add-ons,'' or unrequested authorizations, to defense spending legislation. The FY 1989 Defense Authorization bill contained $4.3 billion in add-ons. In a defense bill whose spending level was set by last year's budget summit (and which, incidentally, represents the fourth straight year of real cuts in defense spending), these add-ons were made ``affordable'' only by diverting resources from other important programs. President Reagan referred to this problem in his veto message on the FY 1989 Defense Authorization bill when he stated, ``The bill would authorize a number of procurements that are clearly in the special interest of a few.... In short, the bill trades vitally needed defense muscle for the parochial interests of those in the Congress.''

Finally, Congress has refused to fund defense on a sensible and consistent basis. For too long, Congress has passed defense budgets that fluctuate wildly from year to year, making efficient and rational defense planning impossible. Defense Secretary of Frank Carlucci III noted during recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee: ``The primary flaw in how America buys arms is instability - instability in individual military programs and instability in the overall defense budget. When funding beyond the current fiscal year is always uncertain, planning and long-term investment make little sense.''

Robert Costello, under secretary of defense for acquisition, echoed the point in testimony before the same committee: ``A lack of stability in the current programming and budgeting process creates unhealthy short-term pressures. It fosters an environment in which everyone is out to protect funding for their programs, regardless of requirements.''

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During consideration of the FY 1989 Defense Authorization bill earlier this year, Congress had the opportunity to address this issue in a Sense of the Congress Resolution which called for modest, but sustained real growth in defense budgets. The goal was to even out defense budgets from year to year, thereby eliminating the ``boom or bust'' budget process and allowing for rational defense planning. Despite support from Mr. Carlucci and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, and though the full House Armed Services Committee adopted the resolution as its formal position, the resolution was defeated by the full House.

In protecting local interests by keeping obsolete bases open; in insisting that the Pentagon purchase things it doesn't want; in refusing to allow more ``contracting out''; in stealing limited resources from important national security programs to fund unrequested special interest projects; and in rejecting the balanced spending resolution, Congress has demonstrated that it would rather continue to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

Given that fact, what about all of the congressional talk of reform?

Of course, there must be reform. Moreover, everyone inside and outside the Defense Department, including defense contractors found guilty of committing fraud with defense dollars, should be made to bear the full brunt of the law.

But, it is not enough for Congress to rush into the fray with its typical ready, shoot, aim approach to reform. No, Congress ought to look into the mirror to see where reform should start. As the self-appointed ``leader'' in reform, Congress might heed the observation of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis: ``The fish rots from the head first.''

Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona is a member of the House Committee on Armed Services.

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