Private Military Contractors and Congressional Failure

Over the course of the past few weeks, fellow PolicyMic contributors Yasmeen Husain and Paul Oliver have been engaged in a debate surrounding the use of private military contractors (PMC). While both make compelling arguments and touch on important issues, they fail to address the root of the problem: Congress.

The operational and ethical ambiguities surrounding the PMC industry that Yasmeen points out, and the Department of Defense’s (DoD) inability to account for all its expenses that Paul mentions, are both problems Congress is meant to address. Congress drafts, implements, and updates the various pieces of law regulating government contracting, including the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), Circular A-76 and the FAIR Act (1998). Furthermore, Congress has the power of the purse. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has designated DoD contract management a high-risk area since 1992 and has been advising DoD on how to reduce these risks ever since. 

And yet, despite these warnings and an increase in the use of PMC’s (particularly since 2001), it wasn’t until 2008 that Congress finally created the Commission on Wartime Contracting – after billions of dollars had already been lost due to “waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.”  Congress has been slow to act in every sense of the word: slow to reform existing legislation and oversight mechanisms and implement new ones. It has further failed to force the DoD (as one possible example) to respond to the issues relating to its (in)ability to effectively manage the public funds it is given. While the GAO has made recommendations for over a decade, many of which are agreed to in principle by the DoD, changes are rarely implemented. Congress should be applying pressure. The notion that challenging the Pentagon makes you soft on defense needs to change. The politicians in Congress sounding alarm bells about government spending and deficits should be leading the charge.

Contrary to what Paul mentions, the DoD does provide information on the contracts it awards valued at over $5 million (http://www.defense.gov/contracts/). The issue with the DoD is that it is so reliant on PMC’s that it routinely issues contracts to companies who have been found guilty of gross misconduct. For example, in 2007, the U.S. Army awarded a new logistics contract, worth up to $150 billion, to Halliburton-KBR (now two separate companies), DynCorp, and Fluor Corp, despite all three companies' being collectively cited by the government for over 29 cases of serious misconduct including false claims against the government, violations of the Anti-Kickback Act, fraud, and conspiracy to launder money. It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that public funds are spent responsibly and accounted for, which includes regulating how government departments and agencies award and manage contracts.

As both Paul and Yasmeen point out, PMC’s serve a necessary function in the execution of America’s foreign policy. The issue of how reliant the government is on these companies is secondary to the issue of effective management and oversight. If the government is going to maintain or increase its reliance on PMC’s, it has a duty to make sure mechanisms are in place to do so responsibly and with accountability. That responsibility belongs to Congress.

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