Obama signs law to reform weapons buying

President Barack Obama signed legislation today to change how the Defense Department buys and tracks acquisitions of major weapons systems.

“When it comes to purchasing weapons systems and developing defense projects, the choice we face is between investments that are designed to keep the American people safe and those that are simply designed to make a defense company or a contractor rich,” Obama said before signing the bill.

The Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act (S. 454) requires DOD to appoint senior officials to assess a project’s performance and analyze underlying causes for any of its shortcomings, such as unrealistic expectations, too little funding, or poor work by a contractor or DOD.

It requires officials to encourage competition, including 10 competition-promoting measures to consider when setting acquisition strategies. It also deals with organizational conflicts of interest, requires a study of earned value management, and sets checkpoints at certain milestones in projects.

The law's purpose is to limit cost overruns before they spiral out of control, Obama said. "Wasteful spending comes from exotic requirements, lack of oversight and indefensible no-bid contracts."

Obama also said this is the first step in fixing how the government buys things. “It reforms a system where taxpayers are charged too much for weapons systems that too often arrive late,” he said. Obama signed a memo March 4 designed to improve the procurement system.

However, acquisition experts say the vast majority of purchases are received as agencies requested.

“By and large the government gets what it wants, when it wants it, for the price it’s wiling to pay,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, who spoke this week at a panel discussion about the federal acquisition workforce. However, he said the procurement system still has room for improvements.

At the same discussion, Steven Schooner, an associate law professor and co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, pointed out the Obama administration views contractors as lining their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense. Schooner said the president, Congress and the news media can’t treat contractors as pariahs because the government can’t operate without contractors’ support.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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