House panel OKs tougher steps to control weapons costs

The House Armed Services Committee neared approval of its fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill Wednesday night, with leaders intent on changing the Pentagon's approach to purchasing expensive weapons systems.

House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., inserted language into his mark of the $512.9 billion authorization bill that would reopen weapons programs to competition, among other options, if the cost increases significantly.

Hunter, a vocal critic of skyrocketing weapons-system costs, said the provision would serve as a "tool for competition." He told colleagues during the committee's marathon markup that it would provide defense companies with a strong financial incentive to stick to original program cost estimates.

In a similar vein, the panel approved an amendment that would require the Navy secretary and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics to sign off on cost projections for naval programs.

The language, sponsored by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Projection Forces Subcommittee, reflected growing congressional discontent with the soaring costs of the Navy's next-generation of ships -- and concerns that the size of the fleet is dwindling to unacceptably low levels.

"We can't get anyone in authority to take responsibility for these numbers," said Projection Forces Subcommittee ranking member Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said the language also would help identify defense officials responsible for the cost estimates. "We want to know who to yell at," he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., once again received overwhelming committee support for an amendment that would severely curb the Defense Department's ability to lease foreign-flag cargo and transport ships.

Under the amendment, the Pentagon could lease these ships for only two years, compared with five years allowed under current law. That could make the leases less attractive to foreign companies, forcing the military to buy new U.S. ships at a much higher cost.

Despite the House panel's strong support for the ship leasing issue, the Senate has twice stonewalled House-passed language that would limit the length of leases.

"This is a feel-good amendment," said Bartlett, who ultimately supported the language after publicly doubting its chance of making it through conference committee.

Davis vowed to work with the Senate on the matter.

On other issues, the panel approved a sprawling personnel package that authorizes a 2.7 percent pay raise for military personnel -- 0.5 percent higher than requested by the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, Hunter included a provision in his mark, as he did last year, that would prohibit beneficiaries of illegal foreign subsidies from participating in Defense Department procurement programs.

"The committee remains concerned about the ability of the United States to compete on a level playing field when facing competition from government-subsidized foreign companies," he said.

That could affect EADS, a European defense firm that has a case pending before the World Trade Organization about the legality of assistance it has received from France, Germany, Spain and Great Britain. EADS plans to vie for a lucrative Air Force contract for aerial refueling tankers.

At presstime, Hunter had not introduced an amendment aimed at targeting military bases slated for closure as potential sites for new oil refineries, a proposal sure to trigger strong opposition from Democrats. He encountered jurisdictional issues and needed to smooth out the language with other committee chairmen, said congressional aides. They said he might have to wait until the defense bill reaches the floor, probably later this month.

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