WASHINGTON — THE huge office of the secretary of defense in the Pentagon's outer ``E'' ring is empty, but problems are still being piled on the desk there. As the Bush administration struggles to get its defense nominee confirmed, Pentagon officials worry they are losing control of crucial issues. They are concerned Congress will step in and promote more reforms in a major Defense Department activity - weapons procurement.
They could be right. Congress says the Defense Department is being slow to adopt already-ordered procurement changes. Continuing developments in the Justice Department's ``Ill Wind'' defense-procurement fraud cases, including allegations linking them to nominee John Tower, will likely keep the issue before the public.
Mr. Tower has not himself been accused of financial wrongdoing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into an allegation turned up by Ill Wind investigators that Tower aides may have accepted an illegal campaign contribution during his 1984 Senate race.
Whatever the substance of this or other Ill Wind charges, members of Congress are using the crisis atmosphere now surrounding defense procurement to promote changes they feel are necessary. Thus, new defense reforms are likely to get early hearing. High on the reform agenda:
A ``US Procurement Corps.'' Currently, the Army, Navy, and Air Force buy their own weapons. But in some Western countries, such as France, this purchasing is done by a central military acquisition agency, not by the individual armed service.
This approach is gaining currency among some members of Congress as a more efficient way of doing business. Staff members of the House Armed Services Committee are set to travel to France this year to study that system. A number of bills that would set up a central US weapons-buying agency will be introduced - with the most drastic one calling for a Procurement Corps that would be outside Defense Department control.
Tougher ethics laws. The House in particular is likely to look at further restrictions on the movement of executive-branch officials into private business. Lengthy laws to slow this ``revolving door'' already exist, but ``most high-ranking guys are still excluded,'' says a congressional aide who works on the issue.
Congress is also likely to consider tougher registration rules for Pentagon consultants. They are among the key targets of a number of Ill Wind fraud probes. And lawmakers may direct that the Pentagon spend more money on its ethics-oversight office.
The last wave of defense reform crested in 1986. That year Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act, and a presidentially appointed panel headed by industrialist David Packard issued a set of reform recommendations.
Since then progress in following these recommendations has come slowly, says a bipartisan panel of experts formed to monitor defense reorganization.
``Many would argue that the acquisition process actually has deteriorated since 1986,'' says a panel report, a joint effort of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Johns Hopkins Institute.
On paper many of the called-for acquisition changes have been carried out. The Defense Department has created a ``procurement czar'' job, the undersecretary for acquisition, as called for by the Packard Commission. The Army, Navy, and Air Force have named their own ``procurement czars,'' plus a second level of ``procurement dukes,'' called program executive officers.
But critics say these changes have been ones of form, not of substance. Of the services, only the Air Force has made its procurement-czar post a full-time job. The Army and the Navy simply piled the added duty atop an already-existing official's desk. And only the Army has established program executive officers as a new level of acquisition jobs.
Critics say the new acquisition system has simply been laid atop the old one. And ``the existing chain of command is immobile, has a not-invented-here mind-set, contains too many professional critics and advocates, and creates nonproductive work,'' claims a study by the Congressional General Accounting Office.
Pentagon officials reply that Congress has had unrealistic expectations of instant change - because many reform recommendations are in fact quite vague. They say the Defense Department is like an enormous ship. It takes a long time to change direction after the rudder is turned.
``There's been a profound cultural shift'' in military acquisition in the last two years, Army Undersecretary Michael Stone says. He says procurement chains of command have been shortened and made more efficient. He says that today there is much more communication between the Army, Navy, and Air Force about their procurement plans.
``The process is now much more disciplined,'' adds John J. Welch Jr., Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition.
The new position of vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was created by Congress in part to oversee this interservice buying coordination. This is one aspect of the procurement reforms that even critics admit is taking effect.
But one major reform proposal has not taken root at all. The Packard Commission called for Congress to approve defense budgets good for two years, instead of one as is now the case. The Pentagon has done its part and submitted two-year budgets in 1988 and '89, but Congress has so far declined to approve more than one year at a time.
Still, Capitol Hill this year is likely to see long hours of hearings, and possibly passage of legislation, on further buying reforms. The Pentagon seems to be resigned to that fact, though it may not like it. ``We've absorbed so many changes lately,'' Mr. Welch says with a sigh.