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Highlights of White House Procurement Breakout Session

By Ed O'Keefe

Apologies for not posting these sooner, but below are the highlights of yesterday afternoon's breakout session about procurement during President Obama's Fiscal Responsibility Summit, as provided by the pool reporter, Jon Ward of The Washington Times. The Eye promises to follow up on the meeting's developments in the coming days:

Procurement breakout session attendees: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Deputy Secretary of State for Management Jack Lew, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Change to Win's Anna Burger, American Federation of Government Employees' Joe Flynn, Center for American Progress' Larry Korb, U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Martin Regalia and NAACP's Hilary Shelton.

Summary: This was a wonky session that Napolitano admitted at the top might be dry but covered a wide range of factors that are causing government contracting to spiral out of control. Much of the conversation revolved around why cost overruns are becoming so common, whether the government should go back to fixed-price contracts as the norm instead of the exception, and issues surrounding the federal workforce.

Levin announced he is introducing a bill that will require defense contracts to be reexamined if its cost increase more than 25 percent over its initial estimate. “It will create a presumption that a system will not continue if it breaks that barrier … There is presumption that a weapons system will not continue to be built, or if it is a requirement that there be a new beginning in terms of the economic assessment … the cost assessments would have to be made again,” Levin said, adding that there will also be a requirement that if there is a $100 billion umbrella contract it must be competitive.

Lieberman also announced that he and Collins have asked McCaskill to chair a new Homeland Security subcommittee on procurement oversight.

And McCain, when talking about the military, popped off on Iraq and Afghanistan: “We will be shifting those troops that come back from Iraq not back to the united states … but to afghanistan. And they'll be gone for a long time … I think the president's announcement of 17,000 is only a first announcement.”

Other than that, McCain was the most combative of the lawmakers. He appeared irritable and close to losing his temper at one point with Tauscher, when she said that satellite contracts in California needed to be preserved, despite cost overruns.

The funniest line of the session came from Levin. When Issa remarked that U.S. military generals and other officers in theater are controlling more money than the entire State Department, Levin blurted out, “Thank God.”

“Jack's not smiling,” Price cracked, looking at the deputy Secretary of State.

“You're writing who the hell invited that guy,” Levin said, laughing.

[Rahm] Emanuel entered at 3:24 p.m.: “Oh, nice of you to join us,” said Issa. Emanuel said nothing and asked no questions.

The 90-minute session was dominated by the lawmakers. McCain, Lieberman, Levin and Issa did most of the talking, with Korb and McCaskill and Price also talking a good bit. Napolitano and Lew asked questions but said little else.

Afterward, Lieberman remarked that the session was productive, and McCaskill noted on her Twitter page: “Surprised at how productive breakout session was on procurement. McCain Collins Lieberman Issa Tauscher Price Levin Towns. All great … It was a session of good policy not politics. Makes me hopeful. If we could just keep that kind of productive atmosphere down the street.”

Everyone sat down in folding chairs arranged in a circle. Napolitano, who was facing away from us, began session by saying that procurement sounds dry but that it quickly gets into issues of good governance, and then had the group go around the circle and introduce themselves.

Lew started off session by he wants more progress toward competitive contracting and asked the group for their ideas.

Napolitano took down the group's ideas and ran them down at the end, saying she was taking the list to brief the president before the start of the last session, an address by POTUS to the summit attendees in the same room.

By Ed O'Keefe  | February 24, 2009; 5:40 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments, Congress, Overheard  
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