Q&A with Rep. Mac Thornberry

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at a July 2012 joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee for Veterans Affairs (DOD Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), shown here at a 2012 hearing, has been tasked by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon with crafting a plan to overhaul defense acquisition. (DOD Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

On the eve of the House Armed Services Committee markup of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill, FCW sat down with Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican tasked by Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon with overhauling defense acquisition. The conversation highlighted Thornberry's views on the Pentagon's ability to keep acquisition costs in check and what Congress can do to help (or hinder) those efforts. Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity.

FCW: May 2 was Defense Department Chief Information Officer Teri Takai's last day in office. What are you looking for in the next Pentagon CIO? In what ways should the successor pick up where Takai left off, and in what ways should the next CIO go in a different direction?

Thornberry: I think [Takai] was moving things in the right direction. The challenge with reforming the Pentagon is always that there is some cultural and institutional resistance to reform. So the person who takes that job, it'd be helpful if they knew the building and the institutions, or at least have had some experience at making changes in a big complex organization, although nothing is as big and complex as the Pentagon.

For technology at the Pentagon, the fundamental deal is you have an institution that is, in some ways, rightfully resistant to change, and you have technology that changes so quickly. And so trying to bridge that gap for a chief information officer or from an acquisition standpoint is really hard. I don't think we should underestimate how difficult that is.

FCW: Do you think the CIO is sufficiently empowered to drive prudent technology policy at the Pentagon?

Thornberry: I've asked [Takai] that a time or two at hearings that we've had. I don't know if you could ever have a CIO sufficiently empowered to overcome the resistance that he or she will face. It is one of the issues that maybe we will take a look at. Are there some other specific authorities, or especially waiver authorities, that make sense for somebody in that position? I don't know the answer but anyone in that position is going to take on bigger challenges than you could ever give them power to overcome completely. So you have to have the support of the [Defense] secretary and the deputy secretary. You have to have that muscle behind you.

FCW: In an April 30 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Joe Donnelly floated the idea of holding IT contracts to the same cost safeguards as weapons-systems contracts. Do you support such a policy?

Thornberry: I think [it is] maybe something we want to explore a little more. That doesn't mean it is a good idea, automatically, for a variety of reasons. But we ought to think about…that principle of once an acquisition goes beyond certain bounds, that there's a red flag that goes up and says, 'pay more attention to me,' which is basically what [the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment] does.

Maybe there's a version that should be considered for IT. But can you do it in a dynamic way given all of the complexities of that? That's what I don't know for sure.

FCW: How important is improving communication between DOD contracting officers and the defense industry to your goals for acquisition reform? Would you support an idea recently raised by Assistant Defense Secretary for Acquisition Katrina McFarland in which DOD shares potential procurement requirements with industry even if those draft requirements never take effect?

Thornberry: One of the things that I hear over and over is that the constraints put upon communication between the Pentagon and industry add to time, add to cost, and prevent the Pentagon from acquiring some things that it could acquire that may meet the need better than the requirements it comes up with. So I do think we've gone too far in making it difficult for that sort of communication with industry to take place.

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I don't know about this particular suggestion [McFarland's], but I've heard [about the communication issue] from enough different industries and across the board to believe that that is a problem.

It may be partly the regulations or the requirements that the Pentagon puts on itself, and part of it may be cultural: 'We're going to stay so far back from that line that we're not going to talk to you no matter what.' So it is one of the areas that we're looking at because I do think we can do better.

FCW: In terms of your broader strategy to cut acquisition costs, would you rather focus on a handful of potentially wasteful programs or try to change the underlying principles of acquisition?

Thornberry: [The latter]. I think the key is looking…to the incentives that exist in the system, both on the side of government and on the side of industry. So there's no new oversight office, no new regulation, no elimination of regulation, that's really going to get at the heart of the matter if the incentives for the program manager or for industry are going to stay the way they are. That, to me, is really the key.

One of the things we did early on is to get 12 or 15 [federal contract] managers anonymously around the table just to talk about the pressures they feel. What are they rewarded for? What are they punished for? Why do they make the decisions they do? We're going to do more of that.

We are pursuing similar efforts … with industry program managers just to understand that side of the fence as well. I think that's really the key to success, to understand those incentives and make adjustments, because it is [federal contract managers'] day-to-day decisions that matter much more than whatever laws we pass or what regulations [Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall] puts out.

The system is better if [contract managers] have greater authority to decide things, but that means we have to understand how they get promoted, what they get flack over. I think a lot of what's happened now is there are so many appeals of decisions that [contract managers] automatically decide for the lowest bidder because that's something that you can defend and you just reflexively go there. And that's not always the best value for the taxpayer.

FCW: How precise can you get with legislative reform of those incentives for federal contracting managers?

Thornberry: Not very. Part of it is you have to have people who are willing to work with you. So, for example, I've talked with a couple of the service chiefs about promotion tracks for program managers and about longevity for program managers. If you're overseeing a complicated program and you're only there for two or three years, by the time you understand it, you're moving on.

It would not be very good for us to try to legislate all of those details, but if we can shine some light and legislate where appropriate … then maybe we can make things a little better.

FCW: What is your pitch to a fellow lawmaker ambivalent about overhauling the federal acquisition process?

Thornberry: To me, it's fairly simple. Even if sequestration, all that stuff, goes away, we're looking at relatively flat defense budgets.

I don't know if you could ever have a CIO sufficiently empowered to overcome the resistance that he or she will face.

Meanwhile, the challenges around the world are not flat at all, they're growing like crazy. So, how are we going to bridge that growing gap between the resources we have and the national security threats and challenges we face?

I think that's a line that most everybody can agree with, regardless of your opinion on a particular weapons system.

FCW: Has the Pentagon been forthcoming with you and other members of Congress on defense programs that may be wasteful?

Thornberry: [Undersecretary Kendall] has been very supportive of our efforts, very willing to work together, and I appreciate that because … this is not something that can just be imposed from Congress. It has to be a joint effort and he's been good at that.

He has been forthcoming in talking about why some of these programs do have cost overruns. For example, changing requirements. So when you get down to it, I think there is a very good discussion about what some of the problems are and then we're just beginning to talk about what some of the solutions are.


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