Sunday, January 21, 2007

Time for a Reprise of the Truman Committee

In 1940, as World War II gripped the globe and United States involvement in the conflict became more and more likely, the United States appropriated $10 Billion in defense contracts in preparation for that eventuality.

Early in 1941, reports of malfeasance and abuses by the contractors reached Missouri Senator Harry S Truman, and the news did not sit well with WW I Infantry Captain “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” In typical Truman fashion, he set out to seek the truth, not by summoning “experts” but by embarking on a 10,000 mile tour of military installations. On this fact-finding tour, he discovered that the companies that received the contracts were clustered in the east, with a mere handful divvying up most of the largesse. He also discovered that they were receiving a fixed-profit, regardless of performance.

He returned to the Senate convinced that the defense efforts of the United States were being undermined by waste and corruption, and he proposed the notion of a special Senate committee that would investigate the National Defense Program.

President Roosevelt was convinced to let Truman head up the committee, being sympathetic to the President and his administration. The President was assured that the committee would not be too much trouble, as it would only be allotted $15,000 to investigate billions in defense contracts.

The Truman Committee was created by unanimous Senate decree on 01 March 1941. Over the next three years, with Senator Truman at the helm, the committee held hundreds of hearings, traveled thousands of miles to conduct field inspections, and saved millions of dollars in cost over-runs. Senator Truman was not shy about threatening executives with prison time as he whacked greedy corporate snouts out of the public trough. It was through his chairmanship of the Truman Committee that Harry S Truman shed his image as a bagman for the Pendergast political/criminal machine that ran Kansas City and Missouri politics for decades, and set his course for the White House. (For those who are unfamiliar with Big Tom Pendergast…He out-Tammanied Tammany Hall.)

Now we face the need for another Truman Committee to investigate contractor abuses once more.

On Wednesday, 17 January, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness heard testimony from Thomas F. Gimble, the acting Inspector General (IG) for the Pentagon, and Katherine V. Schinasi, the Managing Director of Acquisitions and Resource management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO). (Links to opening statements are in .pdf format.) Full transcripts are not yet available, but the opening statements of these two career civil servants are disturbing enough.

Mr. Gimble, the IG for the Pentagon testified that the problems he uncovered were widespread and pervasive, and they ranged from rushing purchases to use funds that were about to expire without doing the appropriate market research and cost analysis; to DoD personnel without security clearances authorizing contracts for classified work. Office space was leased for the Counterintelligence Field Activity by using a service contract instead of following required procedures through GSA. Using service contracts constitutes an “end run” around regulation and if not curtailed, will effectively eliminate oversight.

Both statements linked are full of outrages that should have every last one of us on the phone to our Senators, demanding the appointment of a present-day Truman Committee to rein in the abuses by contractors and the government employees who facilitate their malfeasance.

If it were up to me, that committee would be co-chaired by Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa; and Claire McCaskill, fresh from a successful tour as Missouri’s State Auditor, would have a seat on that committee too. Only appropriate, since she now occupies Harry Truman’s senate seat.