Red Tape and Watchdogs

Times Staff Writer

In wrapping up its report on the Pentagon, the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management asserted that the Pentagon was overaudited, overregulated and overoversighted. The military, Chairman David Packard said, must step over so many watchdogs and through so much red tape that it cannot work efficiently. Congress, he said, must stop trying to "micromanage" the Defense Department.

Mind you, this is the same Pentagon whose mismanagement, exotic weapons that failed to work, and hideously expensive wrenches and toilet seats prompted the formation of the commission in the first place. Indeed, the commission has recommended sweeping changes in the way the Pentagon does business. What, then, is Packard talking about?

Thousands of auditors, inspectors and accountants watch the Pentagon's every move, particularly when it buys weapons. Much of the auditing is the Pentagon's own, and much is directed toward defense contractors. In its zeal to trim down the bloated Defense Department, Congress, as well, has written volumes of regulations, specifications and cost-accounting procedures. Most of these regulations are well-intentioned; they are meant to ensure efficiency, honesty, safety and quality. Most actually serve a purpose.

Such regulation, however, is expensive; complying with rules can soak up much of the cost of procuring a new weapon. New regulations create new bureaucracies, themselves subject to audit. Audits are, moreover, often redundant. Several bodies police military procurement: Congress, the military branches, the Pentagon itself. There is little cooperation among them, leading to needless repetition of audits and compliance records. As the commission report points out, excessive regulation has caused substantial delays in weapon deployments, and has distracted many officials from their primary duties.

Particularly in recent years Congress has regularly rooted through military budget proposals line by line and required the Pentagon to defend its plans before numerous congressional committees and subcommittees. Congress should set policy; it is constitutionally empowered to do so.

Its fine-tuning can be harmful, however, when it is conducted in an uncoordinated way, or when it is not attuned to the unique circumstances under which the Pentagon works. Congressional oversight leans more to money than to strategy.

Defense accounts for more than 70% of the spending that Congress can control. As such, it is the federal government's largest pork barrel, and politics, not defense or money, often determines whether a weapon is built, where it is built, what it is built with and in what district it is based.

The Pentagon's tangle of red tape is largely of its own making. And it hardly needs a longer leash. But, in its watchdog efforts, Congress has often worsened the problem. It would do well to heed the Packard Commission's proposals for reform, and it should face up to its own shortcomings as well.

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