WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe warned Thursday that the sensitive balance between military and private contractor work could be disrupted at repair depots, such as the one at Tinker Air Force Base, because of last-minute changes to the 2012 defense bill.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and several of his colleagues took to the Senate floor on Thursday to complain that the bill had been changed by the U.S. House without notice to the senators who were involved in writing the legislation.
Inhofe said the changes go to the heart of a federal law aimed at preserving a certain amount of maintenance work at military depots like the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. He said his concerns extended to the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
Inhofe fought hard more than a decade ago to ensure work that was essential to military readiness — so-called “core” work — not be given to private contractors.
Now, he said, the provisions in the defense bill “may change how core depot workload is defined and executed at all (Defense Department) depots, shipyards and arsenals, as well as our industrial base.”
Lawmakers who have military depots in their states have long been protective of their workload, as private defense contractors have sought to capture more of it for themselves.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill gives the defense secretary the power to waive the requirements that “core” work be done at military depots.
“Such a waiver could move significant amounts of depot work to the private sector,” McCain said.
Though the defense bill, expected to be signed soon by President Barack Obama, does not scrap the law that generally requires military depots to get half of the work, it makes other changes that weren't clearly understood by the senators.
It was that uncertainty that frustrated senators who have been comfortable with how the current law is working.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the changes raise numerous questions that must be studied next year.
“We will then take action to repeal or modify anything that needs to be repealed or modified in these provisions during our consideration of next year's” defense bill, Levin said.
In the meantime, Levin said, the Defense Department should “make as little change as possible in the status quo with regard to these functions during the next year.”