Federal laws steer DLA mission, business practices

By Colin Williams, DLA Historian

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

The Defense Logistics Agency has been affected by Congress as much as the executive branch during its 58-year history. While some of the influence has come through oversight, the majority resulted from legislation that determined how the agency is structured, operates and employs its workforce. 

One of the most important laws passed to reform Defense Department operations predates 1961, the year Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara formed the agency. Signed into law in 1883, the Pendleton Act mandates that agencies hire competitively and promote based on merit. Before this law, incoming presidents replaced federal workers with people who helped them get elected, a practice that prevented departments from building the expertise needed to run an increasingly complex bureaucracy.

Other early legislation is just as significant. The Buy American Act of 1933 ensures taxpayer money goes to businesses that employ taxpayers. The General Services Administration Act of 1949 consolidated government procurement and real property management in the General Services Administration, whose authorities often overlap DLA’s. The Defense Production Act, enacted a year later, compels companies to prioritize defense over civilian customers in certain situations. As important, the Defense Cataloging and Standardization Act of 1952 has been informing DLA operations since the agency assumed the military’s cataloging and standardization functions in 1962. Finally, the Small Business Act of 1953 ensures DLA and other contracting agencies maintain a competitive national economy.

Not all laws make it easy for DLA to operate efficiently. The Freedom of Information Act, passed five years after the agency’s founding, increased government transparency. Because DLA contracted with civilian corporations, it was soon inundated by citizens curious about where federal dollars were being spent. Many hours of labor went into deciding what could and couldn’t be released to the public. 

In one instance, the agency had to defend its decision not to declassify a technical abstract bulletin before the U.S. Court for the District of Columbia. Losing the case, it filed a motion to stay that was denied first by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and then by the Supreme Court. Just as important as FOIA was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which increased safety measures at DLA’s warehouse and transportation operations. Within a few years of the law’s passage, the agency received praise from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for its “remarkable progress in adjusting” to the new standards. Another broad-ranging law was the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act of 1982. FMFIA required that federal agencies establish internal controls for how they spent money and managed operations. 

Other legislation is more relevant to logistics. In 1973, Congress passed the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act, granting the president power to allocate crude oil among the country’s refineries. In conjunction with the Defense Production Act of 1950, it enabled the Defense Fuel Supply Center to provide oil when few companies respond to its solicitations.

Laws passed to reorganize the military also affect DLA. First was the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. In addition to adjusting how the services, federal agencies and combatant commands interacted with each other, the act designated DLA a combat support agency, thereby adding material readiness and inventory management to the agency’s operational concerns. Along with the designation came an increase in the repair parts the agency provided the services. Before Goldwater-Nichols, DLA contracted for 70-80% of repair parts; after the act, it provided 97%.

Next, Congress shaped DLA through four iterations of Base Realignment and Closure. The 1988 round relocated the agency from Cameron Station, Virginia, to Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The 1993 round changed DLA operations in two significant ways. First, it closed Defense Electronics Supply at Dayton, Ohio, and transferred its functions to Defense Supply Center Columbus, Ohio. Second, it moved the Defense Personnel Supply Center from southern Philadelphia to where the Defense Industrial Supply Center operated in northern Philadelphia. The round also nominated the Defense Logistics Services Center for closure, although Congress intervened to assure its continuation at Battle Creek, Michigan. Four DLA installation depots were not as lucky in 1995. Depots in Ogden, Utah; Memphis, Tennessee; Letterkenny, Pennsylvania; and Red River, Texas all had to cease operations due to that year’s BRAC. The same round also downgraded the Defense Industrial Supply Center to a directorate under the Defense Personnel Supply Center.

Instead of consolidating DLA as in 1993 and 1995 BRAC rounds, the 2005 BRAC increased its responsibilities. In particular, it made the agency responsibility for depot-level repairables, making parts for complex items such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon available through DLA.

Many other laws govern how DLA operates. The Federal Records Act of 1950, Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 and Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998 all exercise great influence over DLA’s business. Every National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress also modifies the agency to some degree. While DLA responds to all three branches of the federal government, its most enduring source of governance is federal law, of which Congress is the sole author.