Former Defense official calls congressional paralysis a threat

Michèle Flournoy Michèle Flournoy Defense Department file photo

Political paralysis on Capitol Hill constrains the United States’ ability to act as a global leader and prevents the government from transforming itself and addressing major issues, a former Defense Department official said Tuesday evening.

In an event at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy from 2009 to 2012, said that Congress’ inability to pass a budget and set long term policy goals was detrimental to the government, especially in an “incredibly complex and dynamic security environment worldwide.”

“When the Congress is not able to pass appropriations bills, it locks [agencies] into the approach of the past and restricts the ability to manage changing facets of global security environment,” Flournoy said. Quickly evolving situations such as the Arab Spring and the rise of cyber warfare require long-term planning, she said.

Flourney added that operating on continuing resolutions prevents the executive branch from modernizing outdated and inefficient systems, including information technology and health care infrastructure. She gave the example of the military service branches’ individual medical systems, which she said could be combined with adequate direction.

“There are a lot of these areas, where if we had congressional support, we could improve performance,” Flournoy said

In addition, the acquisitions process needs serious reform to speed up delivery and deliver better results, she said, referencing the government’s “bifurcated system” for acquisitions -- one for wartime needs and the second for general government demands. She said that taking elements from the quicker wartime process into the general acquisitions process would increase responsiveness and lower costs. Flournoy also said that buying broad platforms for defense was inefficient, and a smarter future would involve procuring smaller elements to place upon a wider foundation.

“We tend to over specify our requirements, and we tend to want everything to be Lamborghinis, when the truth is that there are a lot of good solid Fords that would do the job,” she said.

Sequestration was another major issue, and Flournoy said that the automatic cuts set to kick in on Jan. 2, 2013, would be devastating for the Defense Department, and would be extremely detrimental for current wartime priorities. Flournoy said that cutting the budget rationally would avoid hollowing out the force and leaving the United States constrained for future challenges.

“Trying to implement sequestration would be a disaster for our national security accounts, especially when you have 60,000 troops in Afghanistan,” she said. 

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