With a Senate bid imminent, Shays is back in the limelight

WASHINGTON–Former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays stepped back into the political limelight on Wednesday, discussing deficit politics, government waste and U.S. defense policy on Capitol Hill.

What a perfect platform for a U.S. Senate bid in 2012. But this was no campaign event.

It was a staid news conference in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center, where Shays took center stage in his role as the co-chairman of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting.

The commission issued its final 240-page report to Congress today, with Shays and other commissioners outlining their conclusions–that waste and mismanagement in Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts has cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $60 billion–to a bevy of Washington reporters.

“We are deeply concerned that excessive contracting undermines the ability” of the U.S. military to perform core missions, Shays declared somberly. “The way forward demands reform.”

Despite the serious tone and subject, Shays, a former Republican congressman from Connecticut’s 4th District, was clearly happy to be back in the halls of Congress. He kibitzed with reporters before the event and gladly gave a round of TV interviews afterwards.

But even as he relished being in the political mix, Shays tried to brush off questions about his soon-to-be-launched Senate bid. “You’re not going to get it today,” he quipped when asked about his next steps in forming a campaign.

Shays has made it clear that as soon as his commission work wraps up, he will join the 2012 contest to replace retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent. One other GOP contender has announced–attorney Brian Hill–but most attention remains focused on Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who has said she is considering a run.

On the Democratic side, there’s a three-way contest underway between former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, 5th District U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, and state Rep. William Tong of Stamford.

Many political analysts say Shays will have a tough time in a Republican primary against McMahon, who is likely to spend millions of her own fortune on any bid. And Shays’ centrist politics might not go over well with fired-up GOP primary voters who may be itching for a stronger conservative bent.

Shays’ political pitch will undoubtedly focus on his deep well of political experience. And the commission work lets him tiptoe back into key policy debates where his expertise is evident. Asked how his two-plus years on the commission might burnish his political resume, Shays said he didn’t think it would necessary be a major selling point for him.

“I wouldn’t make that claim,” he said. “I have always been a fiscal conservative focused on waste and fraud and abuse.” The commission work was “just an extension” of his ten terms in the U.S. House.

That, of course, is a pretty sweet talking point, even if it wasn’t touted as such–especially at a time when deficit reduction is all the rage in Washington.

And others weren’t so shy about discussing Shays’ political future and whether his work on the commission would provide a nice launching pad for a Senate bid.

“Oh my goodness, yes,” said Michael Thibault, the commission’s other co-chair and a former deputy director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

Thibault, a Democratic appointee to the panel, said the commission’s work can serve to cement Shays’ reputation as a moderate consensus-builder and highlight his reputation as a fiscal conservative.

“It gives him strength on that,” he said. It also, Thibault added, deepened his expertise on defense and foreign policy issues, which could be prominent in the 2012 Senate contest as lawmakers continue to debate how quickly to wind down the U.S. role in the Iraq and Afghanistan.

The commission was created by Congress in 2008, amid a cascade of reports about billions of U.S. dollars being spent on questionable, fraudulent or misguided projects handled by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shays was tapped for the commission in April 2009 by then-House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is now the House Speaker. Shays had just lost his seat representing Connecticut’s 4th District, swept out in the Democratic wave of 2008 by Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat.

Shays said that his appointment to the commission helped salve his wounds from the bruising 2008 contest. “I did not expect to lose the last election and… it was a real adjustment to realize I was no longer involved in public policy issues. When Boehner asked me to be on the commission, I thought what a great opportunity.”

The eight-member panel was charged with investigating U.S. contracting policies in those two conflicts and make recommendations on reducing waste and malfeasance. The commission concluded that of the $206 billion spent on contracting so far in those two wars, at least $31 billion and as much as $60 billion has been squandered.

Some of the commission’s conclusions and recommendations could prove controversial. For example, the panel argues that the Department of Defense is over-reliant on private contractors and that the federal government needs to beef up staffing and resources to oversee the bidding process and monitor contractors’ performance.

That’s not likely to win much support from Congressional Republicans, who are looking to shave the federal workforce and trim the federal budget.

Shays said conceded that the commission’s recommendations, particularly those that call for increased spending, could be a tough sell. But he said they would save billions of dollars in the long run, by staving off ongoing and future mismanagement and waste as the military continues to contract out huge swaths of reconstruction, security, and logistical work.

“There is still time to make a difference in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be new contingencies,” Shays said. “Congress has a vital role” to reform the process and “avoid new strains” on the federal budget.

He said the panel’s recommendations “will repay themselves many times over in terms of money and mission outcomes.”

Shays said Congress’s new special debt-reduction committee should consider the commission’s proposals, as part of any package to find as much as $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade.

“We’re just one small part of their task,” he said, “but if they don’t take a good look at it, it would be a failing.”

Still, Shays and others acknowledged that the Wartime Contracting Commission’s two-plus years of work could end up in the congressional dustbin. So is that all the more reason to make this a major campaign issue?

Shays said no, he would not make his commission work a centerpiece of his Senate campaign. But he’s not turning away from this set of issues either.

“I joke with my fellow commissioners than we all want to do our part to make sure [our recommendations are] implemented into law,” Shays said, “and if I ever found myself running for Congress or the Senate, I would be working very hard to implement them.”