The House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) ranking member plans to introduce two bills that would compel the Pentagon to implement acquisition reforms that Congress has passed into law, and create a new pilot program meant to help small businesses who seek to provide innovative solutions to the U.S. military.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) does not want to be “revolutionary” on acquisition reform this session – he just wants to make sure the Pentagon implements and builds upon past efforts to improve agility and cut red tape, he told reporters May 16 on Capitol Hill.
“One [bill] is to enforce and take the next steps on things we have already done, and the second one is designed to foster innovation, especially among smaller businesses,” he said.
The first bill is focused on “compelling” the Defense Department to move forward in areas of reform that Congress has already passed into law, and threatens to restrict or limit funding for programs and offices should they fail to provide adequate progress reports to lawmakers. Thornberry noted that Congress has enacted 63 of his reform measures to date, but the department’s record of implementing those reforms is “mixed.”
“Part of the focus of the first bill is to implement a forcing mechanism to implement what we in Congress – with bipartisan support – have already passed,” he said.
The largest component of the bill – about half of it – seeks to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Undersecretaries of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and for Research and Engineering following the 2018 split of the Pentagon’s Office for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, he said.
Thornberry also wants to act on several recommendations that emerged from the Section 809 panel reports over the past couple of years, to include creating a definition of a subcontract, redesigning the certification and education requirements of the acquisition workforce, and enhancing defense worker career fields.
The bill targets the Pentagon’s effort to more rapidly prototype and field new systems to get them more quickly into the hands of warfighters. Thornberry noted that Congress passed a reform in 2015 that permitted more rapid prototyping and fielding, but that the Pentagon has not yet implemented an effective policy to implement that strategy.
His bill would require the department to report on the progress of rapid prototyping and fielding policies, and limits funding on relevant programs until it is submitted. While the specific programs that would be affected were not made available by Defense Daily’s deadline Thursday, Thornberry noted that they were determined by “kind of what made sense, or what would get somebody’s attention.”
Thornberry also takes aim at the Defense Department’s “late and inadequate” initial report on reforming the so-called 4th Estate, which Congress directed last year to present a plan to reduce some back office activities by 25 percent. Thornberry said he did not have confidence that the department would reach that cost saving goal, and so plans to fence away funding for the Pentagon’s Chief Management Officer until subsequent reports are submitted to the Hill.
The bill also seeks to develop a policy for defense business systems that clarifies what guidance is required for the planning, programming and control of investments for defense business systems, and requires the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress with an updated plan. If the report is not submitted in time, Thornberry advocates for restricting funding for the responsible offices.
The bill also deals with issues related to the DoD’s modular open system approach for major defense acquisition systems, requiring a report be submitted on how those approaches are being used to avoid restriction of relevant funds, as it is currently unclear to Congress to what extent the department is on track.
“We don’t have confidence that there is a department-wide approach” that would allow for competition among the open architecture systems, he said. Thornberry also requires the Pentagon to establish an intellectual property (IP) policy, as Congress directed the department to do in 2017, and limits funding until the policy and a workforce of IP experts are established.
“Part of the reason we get ourselves in a bind of being dependent on one supplier for a part or a system is we did not bargain very well for intellectual property at the beginning,” he said. He noted that the Army has developed a service-specific policy on IP, but the other services have not, nor has the Pentagon itself.
Thornberry’s second bill focuses on supporting small businesses looking to work with the U.S. military through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The SBIR program was established in 1983 to offer research grants and other resources to small businesses who otherwise could not compete with large contractors to provide new technologies.
However, Thornberry said he is concerned that many capable small businesses are being rejected from the SBIR program because their innovative technologies are attracting private sector support and domestic investment.
While companies with over 50 percent venture capital ownership are typically ineligible for SBIR grants, Congress created a waiver in 2011 that would allow small businesses that are majority owned by multiple domestic venture investors to participate if approved by lawmakers and the Small Business Association. However, the Pentagon has yet to use the waiver and is turning away small businesses with promising military and commercial tech, Thornberry noted.
The new legislation would create a pilot program with a modified SBIR waiver for such cases, and increase the Pentagon’s level of engagement with commercial technology companies, universities and defense-related national laboratories, while introducing small businesses to cybersecurity practices earlier in their interactions with the department.
“If a small business is owned in part by equity capital, they can participate in the SBIR program,” he said.
Thornberry has provided the legislative language to HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), he noted, but is not sure yet if the language will be included in the committee’s fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) markup or if he will present them as amendments.
“If there are areas in these bills that Adam or some other member disagrees, well, this is the time to bring that up, say why, and we can work our way through it.”