Acquisition reforms take a back burner as Congress reconciles NDAA

Some of the more significant acquisition reforms suggested by the congressionally mandated Section 809 Panel won't be up for a vote in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

NOTE: This article first appeared on FCW.com.

All eyes are on the congressional defense committees as they begin reconciling their differences in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Spending isn't a big issue – lawmakers settled on $738 billion for 2020 – as part of a two-year budget deal approved Aug. 1. 

"The good news is they don't have to address the top-line spending," said Alan Chvotkin, the Professional Services Council's executive vice president and counsel, "but they have to figure out all the thousands of applications that go into the top line."

Conferees, including House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.), did not detail what issues would be taken up or which way they were leaning during a Sept. 19 press briefing.

A Trump administration laundry list of objections to specific items in the 2020 NDAA does not touch on major acquisition issues and is mostly taken up with military policy and organizational matters.

Defense acquisition experts say some of the most controversial issues that will affect the tech procurement likely won't get taken up until 2021.

David Drabkin, the Section 809 Panel's former chair, told FCW that it was "too late" to include much of the panel's 93 recommendations -- the last chunk which were finalized in June -- in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

The hope is for those more controversial ones, such as exempting DOD from the Clinger-Cohen Act in the hopes of speeding up IT acquisitions, to be considered in the 2021 bill and beyond. Drabkin expects the 809 Panel recommendations that did make it into the 2020 bill -- provisions that ease commercial buying and software acquisition -- "ought to pass without any problem."

An 809 Panel recommendation to support cloud acquisition appears headed for passage. Larry Asch, former Section 809 Panel professional staff member and strategic advisor for the Defense Health Agency, explained the measure provides a path for acquiring cloud-based solutions, which would frame a model to buy cloud services and other "as a service" items.

The consumption-based acquisition provision made it into the NDAA via an amendment offered by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). The measure doesn't do a "full implementation" per the panel's recommendation, but Asch said it tasks DOD with conducting a study that would evaluate how consumption-based solutions, where an agency is billed for how much it uses, would affect contracts.

Former panel members also noted their relationship with Congress hasn't been as close since the death of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and the shift of power in the House in the 2018 elections. Drabkin said it seemed that while their ideas are appreciated, Congress may have a "different view of how to get there."

"The heavy lifting is yet to be done," Drabkin said, noting that much of the panel's work will take years to materialize. "I think it will be years before we will be able to understand whether our reports has been adopted or not... We provided the tools needed."

Drabkin noted that several of the panel's recommendations could be immediately implemented, such as only requiring security clearances to those who will handle classified data.

Chvotkin told FCW he's watching a House-passed amendment introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) into the House version of the bill, which aims to block the proposed merger of the Office of Personnel Management into the General Services Administration. The shift is needed, according to the administration, because the move of the National Background Investigations Bureau from OPM to the Defense Department leaves the human resources agency without a big chunk of revenue.

"When they pulled out the NBIB it left, really, not much of OPM," Chvotkin said, adding that PSC doesn't have a position on whether there should be a GSA merger with OPM but is concerned about the funding gap. "If the Congress is not going to support the realignment of functions to OPM, GSA, and OMB -- it's important that you fill that gap pulling out NBIB creates."

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