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THE NATION

Defense Seeking Greater Latitude

Politics: Pentagon finds some of the oversight by Congress is a burden and inefficient. The war on terrorism might help in efforts to change rules.

July 15, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is pushing a series of sweeping proposals that would weaken congressional oversight of the Pentagon and give the military more freedom to manage itself than ever before.

The Pentagon has proposed eliminating requirements for filing hundreds of reports on its activities to Congress every year. Pentagon officials also are drafting proposals to ban strikes by contract workers, eliminate federal personnel rules protecting civilian workers at the Pentagon and bypass environmentalists in Congress.

Some proposals are more provocative. They include allowing the Pentagon to send its initiatives directly to Capitol Hill before other agencies could review them. Once there, the legislation would require Congress to vote quickly, with only limited debate.

That "defense streamlining initiative" was quickly shelved after objections from officials within the administration itself, who decried the seeming chutzpah of a Pentagon trying to avoid the normal reviews. Drafted by the Office of Management and Budget at Rumsfeld's request, senior administration officials say it is far from abandoned.

Indeed, administration officials say it is part of a grander plan that is very much in play--to relieve the Pentagon, and later other executive branch agencies, from oversight that Rumsfeld calls burdensome and inefficient, but which critics say is a necessary inconvenience of democracy.

The proposals, said a senior Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, are "the tip of the iceberg."

"I don't see it as an abdication of oversight, but it's time to talk seriously about, in effect, resetting the table," the senior official said. "We have an unprecedented challenge ahead of us in fighting terrorism, and it's time for a longer-term discussion about roles and visions between the branches of government."

Rumsfeld's Pentagon is not likely to gain passage of any plan that significantly weakens congressional oversight, political leaders say. But the war on terrorism has given Rumsfeld a powerful platform, and his aides believe they can grab more control than the Defense Department has ever had.

And the proposals are testimony to the ambitious agenda of an administration that believes there are too many strings binding the powers of the executive branch and preventing sensible management of the federal bureaucracy.

On Capitol Hill, the proposals have already raised eyebrows.

"Most of these oversight devices have not sprung from the imagination of an overzealous Congress. They have a history" in the defense buildups of the Vietnam and Reagan eras, said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

"They came from the need for greater oversight on our part and greater clarity on the part of the [Defense Department]. As you spend more money and you spend more money on new systems, you want more oversight of those systems, more baselines to measure against, not fewer. It's of concern to me that this administration is asking for more money but less accountability."

The Rumsfeld Pentagon is hardly the first to complain about Congress. In an agency so immense, with a budget so vast, the tension between efficiency and oversight is persistent and inevitable. Every new administration vows to do something about it.

But the current effort stands out in several regards, according to senior administration officials and defense analysts.

It is driven by an administration that has been loath to share information with Congress and the public and has openly chafed at oversight, fueling suspicions about its motives on Capitol Hill.

Although previous Pentagon efforts have focused on cutting red tape and changing internal management practices, this initiative is part of a larger administration-wide effort to fundamentally alter the relationship between executive branch agencies and Congress, senior administration officials said.

"The interest was not restricted to DOD. The vice president was interested. The president was interested. But Secretary Rumsfeld did yeoman work in raising the attention level on a lot of concerns," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget until last year was the point man on the initiatives that circulated among agencies last summer.

Critics say the administration's sweeping agenda for change cries out for more oversight, not less.

"It is true that there are a lot of unnecessary reports to Congress that are a pain in the neck and don't really mean much," said Cindy Williams, former director of national security studies for the Congressional Budget Office. "On the other hand, this is an administration that for a year and a half has been consistently secretive about everything, and has a record of trying to preserve their secrets even from people within the government who should know them, so this has to be seen within that context."

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