White House Speaks Up Late Against Pentagon Bureaucracy Trimming

  • Office of Management and Budget issued a statement of administration policy objecting to Thornberry provisions
  • Pentagon officials had made supportive statements leading up to defense authorization bill

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) got an unpleasant surprise from the White House: opposition to his efforts to trim the Pentagon’s logistical and support bureaucracy.

Perhaps more surprising was that the news was delivered in the usually routine White House statement of administration policy late Tuesday, and even though several Pentagon officials had not previously objected publicly to Thornberry’s efforts as part of the annual defense authorization bill (H.R. 5515), which is expected to be approved by the House Thursday.

The routine statements of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget can carry much weight in negotiations with the Senate, especially if the Senate’s defense authorization measure doesn’t include similar provisions, according to a senior House Armed Services Committee aide who asked not to be named to discuss the issue. While nothing else in the Trump’s administration’s policy was a surprise, the pushback on Thornberry’s provisions to reduce defense support agencies was unexpected and frustrating, the aide said.

Initially, Thornberry’s proposal to overhaul and trim Pentagon support agencies over the next several years was more ambitious. Thornberry had eyed as many as seven agencies for elimination but the final language in his bill was substantially scaled back. The included provisions would eliminate the Washington Headquarters Service and transfer the work done by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to other parts of the Pentagon.

‘Consistent and Constant Conversation’

For its part, the Pentagon said it was aware of Thornberry’s plans as the bill was being drawn up and one senior official said there were productivity gains to be made.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White confirmed that as the proposal was being discussed and brainstormed in the House Armed Services Committee the Pentagon had been kept abreast. “There is a consistent and constant conversation that goes on between the staff, as well as here, as well as with the professional staffers on the HASC,” White said at an April 19 Pentagon briefing.

Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told a defense writers group that he welcomed Thornberry’s efforts, according to an account of the group forum posted by Defense Department on its website April 24. “There is this assumption that there are all these people standing around with their hands in their pockets and not working hard,” he said. “What we find is we have processes and management systems and [information technology] systems that have evolved over years and years that were never designed to scale to the size that we are, and so people are stuck in processes that … aren’t as productive as they could be.”

Increased IT Costs

Now, as the House is considering the must-pass defense authorization bill, the Trump administration has officially weighed in against the language.

“The Administration objects to directing the Department to transfer all information technology contracting, acquisition, and senior leader communication services of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to other DOD elements. This action would increase the cost of acquiring information technology, [and] weaken the Department’s ability to secure its cyber networks,” the White House said. In addition, the administration urged the House to include the Washington Headquarters Services agency on the list of agencies being reviewed rather than outright eliminate it.

The House isn’t currently considering any amendments to change Thornberry’s proposals to overhaul the defense support agencies, also referred to as the “Fourth Estate.” That leaves the door open for the Senate to tackle the issue when it considers its defense authorization bill or in conference negotiations with the House later this year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com; Theresa Barry at tbarry@bgov.com