Thursday, March 5, 2009

No more $700 toilet seats for the military? Promising to save Americans billions of dollars, President Obama is proposing ways to eliminate waste and fraud in government contracts, primarily for the military. So what is Obama’s first “immediate step” for saving “up to $40 billion”? It’s a study that will be completed by the end of September to “develop tough new guidelines.”

We hope that we can bank on this “up to $40 billion” per year saving more than Mr. Obama’s frequently made promise during the presidential debates to make government smaller and “a net spending cut,” and his promise to “go line by line through every item in the federal budget.” So far we haven’t seen that in either the stimulus bill or the $410 billion package “to keep government running” through September.

Mr. Obama’s second step? A promise to stop all outsourcing services for the military. The notion that the government can do a better job of providing food than private companies is a strange one. Would the president really suggest that airport authorities take over and run all the restaurants in their facilities? Mr. Obama might believe in government, but this sounds like a cost-increasing/quality-decreasing decision to us.

Unfortunately, there was no mention during Mr. Obama’s talk about ending set-aside contracts for minorities or women. No notion that the contracts should be given to those firms that can do the job for the lowest costs.

The president wants to invest in only technologies that “are proven” so as to “end the extra costs and long delays.” That is a nice sentiment, but in the real world cutting edge military technologies are difficult to work with. What might work well in a prototype can show unexpected surprises when you actually put something into production. Waiting until a project is “proven” might mean real delays in getting our troops the tools that they need.

Of course, the president also promises to “maximize transparency and accountability,” words that have been getting a real workout by the administration. But they are words that seem so far to have had little substance to them.

Let’s hope that the contracting proposals have more transparency than with the so-called “stimulus” bill. Mr. Obama promised voters at least five days to study legislation, but the stimulus bill was passed by the House just 12 hours after a marked up copy was put on the web and the Senate voted on it only hours after that. The president signed the stimulus into law less than five days after it was put up on the web.

By the way, those $700 toilet seats were a myth. The so-called “toilet seat” was actually a complete cover for a human waste container for either a P-3 or C-130 airplane. The item was a custom shaped fiberglass unit, in a small production run, with high upfront development costs.

We wish the president luck with these reforms, but we will have to wait to see how exactly he is going to save all this money without hurting military procurement and without actually raising costs.

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