Changing the Pentagon's buying habits

BIPARTISAN presidential commissions have been used to great effect during the Reagan administration. They have been able to drain partisanship, at least for a time, from vexing national issues and have presented cohesive proposals for solutions to difficult national problems. Their findings have formed the basis for Congress and the White House to establish sound national policy. The best example is the commission on social security, which cut through conflicting arguments and political appeals to propose ways, soon adopted, to put the social security system on a more solid footing.

The Kissinger Commission on Central America similarly took a long-range view, although not all recommendations have been followed and partisan views have long since crept back into consideration.

Now a new commission is to be established, this one to review Pentagon procurement. Like its predecessors it is very much needed: Pentagon procurement practices have been in need of change for years, predating the Reagan administration.

We could wish this commission had been constituted at the beginning of the first Reagan administration, rather than after four years have elapsed.

During the intervening time the public has been treated to a string of well-publicized scandals in the purchasing of military supplies, ranging from major accusations against some defense contractors to indefensible overpricing of individual items, such as $7,000 coffeepots and $400 wrenches.

Some of these charges have been ferreted out by the Pentagon itself; some have surfaced in other ways.

The continuation of these charges has coincided with a decrease in public support for the buildup of the military, which began during the latter years of the Carter administration. If the current administration is to have support both in Congress and across the United States for a continued buildup, it is important to restore public confidence that funds are spent wisely. That will require, for a start, a revamping of current military purchasing practices.

Prodded by public ire, Congress has been preparing to try to force the Pentagon to change these purchasing policies. Several amendments are expected to be offered in the House of Representatives this week as the military authorization bill is considered. Democrats, in particular, want to be seen by the public both as supportive of a strong national defense and insistent that the Pentagon spend its funds efficiently. Public polls report that many Americans view Democrats as favoring a national defense that is too weak. President Reagan's announcement Monday that he would establish the commission is effectively taking the political momentum from House Democrats.

Reform will not be easy. The Pentagon is probably the world's largest purchaser, and many of the military items it buys are of extraordinary complexity. Yet progress clearly can be made.

More basic issues demand to be considered by the new commission than merely overpriced coffeepots and wrenches. One is the appearance of a too-close relationship that has existed for years between defense contractors and the branches of the military that are supposed to oversee them. Another is whether the military command structure at the top levels promotes duplication of weapons, rather than allowing one branch of the armed forces to grow at the expense of the others. A third is whether the office of the secretary of defense spends adequate time and effort in trimming programs that can be cut or eliminated, so as to get the best value for taxpayer funds.

The commission's members ought to be appointed promptly, and the full group ought to begin work in the next few weeks. There is much to be done.

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