The return of the $640 toilet seat

Pentagon waste is an evergreen topic. It never grows old. It never goes away. It’s always there when you need a quick filler. Last week it was TomGram‘s turn to break out the old war horse and give it a trot around the block. They even bring back an iconic symbol of Pentagon waste, the $640 toilet seat.

The trouble is, they rarely address all the root causes of these budget busters. To their mind, they are all due to single-source contracts and contractor-driven over-runs. But there are other problems, and they are baked into the system.

You see, much of the waste is due to Congress specifying rules that maximize the ability of their district to get contracts, rather than maximizing efficiency. And much is due to Congress wanting close and continuous control over the budget, as is their Constitutional duty.

Not worth $640 Except in small lots

Not worth $640
Except in small lots

For example, that toilet seat. The reason it cost so much is that Congressionally mandated accounting rules said that the entire cost of re-opening a closed production line had to be applied against the 54 covers that were ordered. Why didn’t they build more and amortize the cost over a longer production run? Because the Services are limited in how many out-year spare parts they can order.

Another reason for cost overruns is feature creep — government mandated additions and changes to the system. It takes a long time to develop a new weapons system, and technology changes. That being the case, the government will often come to the contractor and say “we want to add x capability”. The contractor isn’t being paid to say no, so they add the new capability and the new weight and charge the additional cost.

F-22 Raptor Heavy as you want it to be

F-22 Raptor
Heavy as you want it to be

When I was on the Air Staff in the early 1980’s, we were working on the specifications for the ATF, the Advanced Tactical Fighter that would become the F-22, with an IOC of 2005, a twenty year development cycle. The ATF had a takeoff weight of 23,000KG, while the F-22 has a takeoff weight of 29,000KG. Where did those extra six tons come from? Part was reality contaminating a beautiful design. Part of it was feature creep.

There was one incident in the last ten years or so (from memory, sorry), where a contractor was hauled into court for fleecing the government, and the court looked at the records and said in effect “the government knew and approved all of these price changes and is totally complicit in the cost overruns. You got no case.”

Am I saying that contractors don’t try to screw over the government and don’t pad their expense accounts at every opportunity? Heavens no. It goes on all the time. The Lockheed Corporation of toilet seat fame was infamous for it. There are whole battalions of administrators that should be in jail after Afghanistan and Iraq. But remember that a major weapons system like the F-22 will have a small army of DoD accountants and contract officers in the production facility.

The lesson is, don’t believe everything you read in the press. But you knew that already, right?

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