A House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Feb. 7 highlighted the tangled complexities blocking the U.S. from altering its notoriously cumbersome export control system. Although lawmakers agree on the need for reform, any discussion brings up more problems than solutions.

As lawmakers grapple with a thicket of policy details, the U.S. aerospace and defense industry is increasingly looking abroad to make up for a predicted decline in U.S. spending as the government begins a 10-year effort to reduce the federal deficit. That market direction, however, needs to be balanced with the increasing security concerns about technology finding its way to China or Iran, and the shifting allegiances of current U.S. allies.

To heed calls for reform, the Obama administration is attempting its own overhaul, rewriting the U.S. Munitions List to include only the most sensitive parts, components and technologies. Remaining items are being moved to a list controlled by the Commerce Department so they can be more easily traded with 36 nations allied with the U.S.

But it is not clear exactly when those reforms will take hold. List revisions are ongoing this year. Any changes also will require consultation with Congress. And industry is in the process of commenting on draft changes of lists for armored vehicles, aircraft and engines, among others.

During the hearing, Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.) reminded the administration it will need to let Congress know which items are being removed from the munitions list. Plus, in setting up the new list governed by the Commerce Department, the administration is expected to include safeguards stipulating which foreign parties can have access to items that are controlled, and a call for foreign help in enforcing the agreement. “These appear to be missing from the process set out by the administration,” Ros Lehtinen says.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, is pushing hard for reforms, particularly regarding aircraft and satellites. Berman says even the management models for licensing exports are cumbersome and asked Marion Blakey, the president of the Aerospace Industries Association, what kinds of changes she would like to see in this arena.

According to Blakey, the government has tried since the Clinton administration to license individual weapons programs, making a decision that would apply to future transactions. This kind of change could be applied to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, she says, adding that the government would then not have to license the jet for each transaction.

“Somehow the paperwork aspects of that got ahead of the good intentions,” Blakey said. “So unfortunately this has not happened yet.”

Along with the push to ease the flow of U.S. exports to the global market, the U.S. printed-circuit industry is looking for increased protection. According to Mikel Williams, president of DDi Corp., the U.S. industry has declined in the past decade, with much of the business moving to China.

“Without a robust printed board industry, the U.S. defense supply chain is at risk, leaving the Department of Defense susceptible to counterfeit parts, unreliable components and lack of technological expertise to meet its requirements,” Williams said in testimony to the committee. “Without greater federal attention to our defense industrial base, the Department of Defense in the years ahead may be forced to rely to a great degree on overseas manufacturing for sensitive, high-technology military electronics. There is no question in my mind that such a development would pose an unacceptable risk to our national security.”