More primary math, Boeing’s second chance, and DHS mission creep

By Steven Brill
January 24, 2012

1. Time to look at the late primary states and “favorite son” rules:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story examining how the new rules requiring more proportional representation in awarding Republican primary and caucus delegates might force a deadlocked or brokered convention, because they could prevent even a front-runner like Mitt Romney from arriving in Tampa with the necessary majority of delegates even if he wins an overwhelming majority of the state contests. With it looking likely at least for now that Romney may not even be able to rely on winning most of the primaries and caucuses, the probability that a majority will elude all candidates seems higher.

So it’s time for stories about the rules and the candidates’ prospects in the large states with nominating contests that come after Florida and even after the much-heralded Super Tuesday on Mar. 6. For example, Texas, Maryland and Wisconsin come on Apr. 3 – and will award more than twice the delegates at stake in the four contests held through next week’s Florida primary. New York and Pennsylvania happen on Apr. 24; Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia are on May 8; and California and New Jersey, among others, are on Jun. 5.

I’m looking for a story that explains, among other things, the rules regarding delegates pledged to one candidate being shifted to another. To take the obvious example, if Rick Santorum builds up even a modest number of delegates that could put someone else over the top, to what extent could he persuade them to move to Gingrich or Romney? (Suppose one of them hints at the vice-presidential spot for him.) If Santorum could deliver delegates to Gingrich, then the notion of him having to drop out to help Newt overcome Romney would be wrong; it would be better to have two anti-Romney flavors out there to choose from for a while.

Indeed, all kinds of rules are now likely to count — a lot — and need to be explained. Another example: Because Florida was penalized 50 percent of its delegates for holding its primary before the rules allow it to, Newt Gingrich’s home state of Georgia has 50 percent more delegates than Florida (76 compared with 50). Then again, Florida is a winner-take-all state, meaning whoever wins by one vote gets all 50 delegates; Georgia’s are allocated in part on a winner-take-all basis for each congressional district and in part on a complicated proportional basis.

As for Texas, Indiana and New Jersey, we need some coverage on what the rules are for “favorite son candidacies,” a tool used in the bygone era of brokered conventions that allowed a local governor or senator to run in his state’s primary ostensibly to get control of the state’s delegates. He could then award those delegates to another candidate, or sometimes he would become a candidate himself in a brokered convention. Could New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Indiana’s Mitch Daniels emerge that way? Could the much-diminished Texas Governor Rick Perry become a kingmaker of sorts if he can get control of a chunk of his state’s proportionately allocated 155 delegates?

2. Is failure ever a disqualifier for government contractors?

I was amazed to see a glossy ad on the back page of the National Journal last week trumpeting the “Proven Experience” of the “Boeing border security system.” As with many of the ads in this Washington-based, high-priced weekly, this one was meant to promote a government contractor’s credentials in advance of the award of a major new contract – in this case a program called  “Integrated Fixed Towers,” or ITF.

A government website for ITF declares that the program will pay a contractor to deploy sensor towers along the country’s border in order to provide information on the ground to Border Patrol agents looking to catch people trying to sneak in.

What’s so surprising about the Boeing ad is that anyone familiar with the Department of Homeland Security’s border security efforts over the last 10 years will regale you with stories about a fiasco called the Secure Border Initiative Network, whose acronym was “SBInet.” SBInet was canceled in early 2011, years after its “virtual border fence” was supposed to have been completed. Billions were poured down the drain on high-tech equipment that just plain never worked. Such unexpected factors as rain, animals or even birds flummoxed the big-ticket sensors, despite the contractor’s promises in its proposal that everything had been tested and would work flawlessly.

The lead contractor on SBInet? You guessed it: Boeing. Only in Washington would we see the government contractor-equivalent of the skipper of the Titanic (or the Costa Concordia) take an ad promoting its credentials to get a few billion more for the same assignment. I’d love to see a story asking Boeing CEO W. James McNerney, Jr. exactly what the “experience based on real operational performance” is that his company refers to in the ad. Isn’t the ad meant to help the company win the new contract for a program apparently meant to succeed where Boeing and SBInet failed?

When the program was canceled (amid much chuckling from rival contractors that had lost out to Boeing), Boeing cited changing requirements and unexpected conditions that had hampered the program, but also said progress had been made in getting the equipment to work. Yet the simple fact is that the contract was scrapped in a world where few such contracts ever get canceled outright. Nonetheless, if McNerney has a better explanation, that would also be an essential part of the story.

More than that, at a time when the failure of government has enraged most Americans, how about a story tackling the rules and customs related to these kinds of contractor failures? Is the pitch that Boeing makes in its written proposal for the contract required to be more, uh, candid than this ad? In fact, why wouldn’t Boeing be disqualified from competing for new work that wouldn’t be necessary but for its earlier failure? If not, is it conceivable as a practical matter that DHS procurement bureaucrats would give the new work to Boeing? I’d love to hear their explanation for even considering Boeing and to find out how often this kind of failure is forgotten and the contractor gets awarded a do-over.

3. Mission creep at the Department of Homeland Security:

Speaking of the Department of Homeland Security, I recently came across this headline in the trade publication Government Security News, which covers DHS:

DHS To Attend Online Dating Conference in Miami Beach.” An official in the department’s “Computer Emergency Readiness Team” was traveling to Miami Beach “to discuss deceptive dating tactics,” the story reported.

The next day a press release from DHS announced that Secretary Janet Napolitano was participating on Jan. 11 in a “Human Trafficking Round Table.”

Of course, the dangers of online dating are real, as is the tragedy of human trafficking. But don’t these activities by officials of the agency created in the wake of 9/11 to protect us from terrorism suggest a bit of mission creep? It seems time for a good look at DHS and Secretary Napolitano (who seems, from the DHS press releases I see from time to time, often to be away from the store making speeches and going to conferences).

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during his victory speech at his South Carolina Primary election night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

3 comments

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My reference point for understanding all things American is Alex Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. If you haven’t read it in a while a refresh is in order. Al spends some time talking about how our democracy might die, and comes to the conclusion that if it does, it will be through paternalistic involvement from the central government (case in point: DHS).

Interestingly, he also observes that we really don’t do much with that free speech right. We are hyde-bound conformists. We hush up alternative visions by disdaining ‘extremism’. One of the worst things that could happen now is a Obama – Romney election. How do you like your oatmeal – hopefully plain because that’s what your gonna get. Right now about the only alternative vision on things is coming from Ron Paul. He’s a bit of fruitcake, but certainly exhibits more capacity for original thought than the rest. If you actually listen, you will hear him talking about the Boeings and DHS creep problem. Obama and Romney won’t, Newt will, but he will expect a product endorsement fee.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

I just found this searching for an article on DHS mission creep!

Posted by bwalker | Report as abusive

I trust Mr. Brill will forgive Ms. Napolitano if she ever offers her lay opinion on how to excel in journalism, due to her crude understanding of its workings. No doubt, she forgives him for his ignorant comments above.

She keeps a busy travel schedule like all cabinet officials because they are speech makers, non-essential political executives who forward an administrations agenda by such activities–not by delving into the day-to-day operations of a 372,000 member government agency.

Mr. Brill may be aware of recent news items covering homicides believed related to on-line dating and other such internet services? If so, he would understand that DHS is rightfully addressing a public concern through public education of potential victims at conferences such as in Miami.

As for Boeing, space does not allow for proper elucidation beyond saying that defense procurement is a bit more complex than, uh, the ad to which you refer. And if you think the DHS border network fiasco is outrageous, please refer to NASA or the Pentagon.

Posted by Nomos | Report as abusive