William D. Hartung / The Hill – 2016-12-09 01:02:23
WASHINGTON (December 6, 2016) — The revelation this week by The Washington Post that the Pentagon buried a report that exposed $125 billion in waste in the department’s administrative operations is just the latest indication that it is more interested in padding its budget than spending taxpayer dollars wisely.
Reducing this entrenched bureaucracy should be a top priority for the new administration and the new Congress that take office in January.
This is not the first time the issue of the billions in unnecessary bloat in the Pentagon’s budget has been raised.
A 2010 report by the Defense Business Board uncovered similar problems, citing an “explosion of overhead work because the Department has failed to establish adequate controls to keep it in line.”
And as Gordon Adams, former director of the Office and Management and Budget for defense issues, has noted, the cost of the Pentagon’s back office has “basically doubled per active duty troop since 2000.”
In short, a huge portion of the Pentagon’s buildup in the 2000s has paid for bureaucracy, not combat capability. The business board report made specific recommendations of how to fix the problem, but few were implemented.
In addition to the issue of bureaucracy, a few examples of the other ways the Pentagon wastes our money underscore the point of the need to keep a much closer eye on the Pentagon’s use of our tax dollars.
In February of this year, I issued a report that provided a small sampling of the most egregious examples of Pentagon waste that have occurred in the past few years, from small expenses like Pentagon personnel spending on casinos and strip clubs using their government-issued credit cards to spending $2.7 billion on a surveillance balloon that failed spectacularly when it came free from its moorings and crashed in Pennsylvania.
The new Defense Business Board 2015 report casts doubts on Pentagon claims that it is making progress towards being able to pass an audit, something it has failed to do since 1990, when it was first required by law.
The Pentagon now has the dubious distinction of being the only federal agency that cannot pass an audit. As a result, the department often doesn’t know how much equipment it has, or how many contractors it employs. This makes the department extremely vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse.
The audit issue has gained greater visibility in recent years, including planks in both the Republican and Democratic platforms that promised to do something about the problem. And there were bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate this year that, if passed, would have imposed financial penalties on the Pentagon if it doesn’t get its books in order.
Supporters of the bills ranged across the political spectrum, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) in the House, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate.
President-elect Donald Trump has also spoken out on the issue of Pentagon waste, promising to clean up the department and “conduct a full audit.” In fact, Trump puts so much stock in reducing Pentagon waste that he has cited it as a major way to offset the costs of the major increases in troops, ships, aircraft and missile defense systems he proposed during the campaign.
Given a price tag that could reach well over $900 billion in additional spending over the next three decades, there is no way President Trump can offset all of the costs of his proposed buildup by cutting waste. But he will certainly have an incentive to squeeze out all the savings he can find.
But even if the Pentagon were able to account for every penny it spends, there would still be a question of whether those funds are being spent on the right things.
There is a broader definition of waste that goes beyond the administrative costs cited by the business board.
This includes the refusal of Congress to support the closure of unnecessary military bases under a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process; the decision to move full speed ahead on the F-35 fighter program despite its myriad cost and technical problems; and the plan to spend $1 trillion over the next decade on a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles at a time when current systems already exceed what is needed to deter any country from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons.
The plan to spend funds on high-priced nukes makes even less sense when one considers that upgrades of current systems could last for decades without having to throw tens of billions of dollars at systems we don’t need at prices we can’t afford.
Even in times of intense partisan debate on a whole range of other issues, it should be possible for Congress and our next president to come together on the need to eliminate waste at the Pentagon, broadly defined.
Whether or not they do so will be a good test of whether they are willing and able to spend scarce tax dollars efficiently and effectively. This kind of accountability is the least we should ask for as we move into a new, uncertain period in Washington.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
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