Originally published Monday, September 5, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Protect taxpayers from the waste, fraud and abuse of wartime contracting

Putting the federal government on a new path of fiscal responsibility involves an unblinking look at wartime contracting. Rigorous oversight of that lucrative relationship is basic to deficit reduction.

quotes Probably the reason Cheney & Rummy went into Iraq so ill prepared. They could hire... Read more
quotes What about the waste of the wars themselves? The waste of building bases all over the... Read more
quotes It's not about just "wartime". It's about "all the time". We... Read more

FOR anyone suspicious of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget, the joint select committee on deficit reduction has an obvious target: wartime contracting.

The committee co-chaired by Washington Sen. Patty Murray holds its organizational meeting on Thursday. The searing final report of a bipartisan panel looking at the mugging of U.S. taxpayers in Iran and Afghanistan should be a top agenda item.

The congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting concluded at least $31 billion was lost to waste and fraud, with the number possibly as high as $60 billion. Even those figures were considered conservative if lucrative make-work projects and training cannot be sustained by the local governments.

The notion of no such thing as a free lunch is utterly challenged by federal rules that mandate heavy support by private contractors for "contingency operations" involving U.S. forces in hostile situations or national disasters.

More than 260,000 contractors worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, with overhead and expenses expected to top $200 billion. The commission not only found what its chairman described as an overreliance on contractors, but also that no one was paying attention.

Arcane federal rules and a zealous indifference to the absence of contract management, oversight and interagency coordination combined to enrich contractors at taxpayer expense. Abuse was found in lots of areas, including food contracting, maintenance, rental agreements and construction.

Sloppy work, sloppy contracts, dubious business practices and a fundamental lack of trained federal employees looking out for taxpayers is a short but by no means comprehensive list of the failings.

The use of private security forces ought to draw attention. They are a particular frustration with the commission members, who spent three years cataloging a range of problems.

A failure to have official expectations for contract delivery and performance, and systematic ways to gather and review data is broadly summed up as a lack of regulatory oversight.

The absence of a bureaucratic template to protect taxpayer interests echoes the financial collapse on Wall Street and the subprime mortgage debacle. Organized, moneyed interests lobbied hard to water down the rules and discourage any enforcement.

Those same lobbyists will be back in force to resist any reforms, as they pound on the table about jobs and national security. They might even volunteer the names of a few new enemies for the defense establishment to go after. The commission report acknowledged the temptation to look the other way and avoid paying for reforms in tight budget times, but added:

"Congress must resist that temptation and recognize preparedness for emergencies requiring contingency contracting is as much a national-security priority as procuring weapons systems."

Congress can expedite the ending of two wars and reform the way they are fought and paid for.


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