How Congress really oversees defense programs

Lots of homework, and sneaky language

The defense budget seems so bloated; the defense bureaucracy seems so overburdened. How can these two conditions exist simultaneously?

One reason is the way Congress oversees defense programs.

Because Congress cannot (practically) use its "power of the purse" to exercise programmatic scrutiny on a day to day basis, committees with jurisdiction must find a way to obtain information about programs, plans, policies, requirements, and developments. That way, they know what questions to ask, and they know whom to ask.

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How? They ask the Secretary of Defense and other officials to provide reports to relevant committees. Sorry. Not asks. Requires. As in, program "A" will be funded at 70 percent of its authorized level unless the Secretary of Defense provides a report within 90 days of the enactment of this bill on subject "X." Normally, the reports are ordered when the House and Senate disagree about an appropriation. The tender for the deal is the promise of more information.

In the accompanying explanation, there are more than a 100 passages like this one:

The Senate committee-reported bill contained a provision that would require the Secretary of the Air Force to procure the currently deployed Blue Devil intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system or to develop a plan to replace that system with a comparable or improve system. The House bill contained no similar provision. [LawFare]


The agreement includes the Senate provision with an amendment that would require the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a plan to sustain the operational capabilities of the Blue Devil I ISR Systems, including precision signal geolocation, by procuring the existing Blue Devil I aircraft. [LawFare]

Ok. But also:

The Secretary is required to submit a report that addresses the cost of procuring, operating, and sustaining Blue Devil I aircraft system; the ability of other platforms to provide similar intelligence capabilities; and a listing of related U.S. Air Force and Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) programs. The report should be coordinated with the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Director of DARPA.[LawFare]

Practically, this requires the Office of the Secretary to spend more brain bandwidth on departmental oversight of this one program relative to others because staff members must stay current enough to write an extra report to Congress. In theory, this means that program directors will face more pressure to control marginal cost overruns and to run the program more effectively and efficiently because they know that the Secretary is required to watch the program more closely. (It might also incentivize them to cut corners, cost-wise.)

The reporting process can be used passive-aggressively. Example: The Army has resisted calls from Congress to use commercial software written by Palantir for high-grade link analysis of intelligence even though soldiers on the ground think it is much more useful than the already-in-use software used by the service's tactical command, control, and intelligence system, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). (Disclosure: I was a Palantir consultant for three months on an unrelated project.) The Army's intelligence czars ought to have discretion here; Congress shouldn't micromanage specific software choices because the Army knows what the Army needs. So instead of outright forcing the Army to buy Palantir's software, this is what will happen:

The House bill contained a provision (sec. 220) that would require that: (1) Beginning with the budget request for fiscal year 2015, future budget submissions include separate project codes for each capability component within each program element for each service version of the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS); (2) The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L)) conduct an analysis of commercial link analysis tools that could be used to meet the requirements of each of the service versions of the DCGS; and If one or more commercial link analysis tools were found to meet the requirements of the program, the responsible service secretary would be required to initiate a request for proposals to purchase thoe tools. [LawFare]

Sneaky sneaky! The House would require the Army to break up each function of the DGCS into separate program elements, which basically requires them to analyze the effectiveness of every single component of the software package. And if "commercial link analysis tools"; that's a reference, basically, to Palantir; "were found to meet the requirements of the program," the Army would have to buy that "commercial" program for the DCGS, replacing the Army's own inputs.

The final version of the bill includes an additional provision, which would require the Army to certify that the DGCS complies with the intelligence community's data compatibility standards, a fancy way of saying that the software must be a lot more flexible than it is now, flexible kinda like Palantir's software is flexible. See how it works? Says Congress:

We expect that the USD(AT&L) will adjust the acquisition plans for if his analysis of the competitive acquisition options for capability components within DCGS shows that expanded competition shows promise. [LawFare]


The very next section of the bill, on "operationally responsive space," an opaque reference to single mission and functional micro satellites, includes this report requirement:

The agreement includes an amendment requiring a report no later than 60 days from the date of enactment regarding a potential mission that would seek to leverage all the policy objectives of the Operationally Responsive Space Program in a single mission. [LawFare]

So what will thousands of Pentagon staffers be doing over the next few months? Writing reports. Lots and lots and lots reports. Reports that maybe ten people will read. It may be messy and insufficient as a mechanism for keeping folks honest, but it's how the sausage grinds.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.