The Pentagon is just another government agency. That's a fact many in Washington are reluctant to acknowledge, especially some cognitively dissonant members of Congress, who like to rail against fatty bureaucracy at the Department of Agriculture while behaving like any cut to the defense budget is a travesty against our soldiers.
In fact, there’s plenty of waste at the Department of Defense (DOD), which has almost 750,000 civilian employees and plenty of inefficient boondoggles to speak of. The Budget Control Act, passed by Congress in 2011, tried to tackle this problem by setting caps on how much the Pentagon's rate of spending was allowed to increase. And if those limits were exceeded, down swung sequestration, a meat cleaver that trimmed an even layer off the defense budget.
Sequestration was triggered only once — in 2013 — but since then, the Pentagon has been keeping its head under the caps. A sudden outbreak of fiscal responsibility? Not so much.
Instead, Congress has turned to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, which is supposed to be reserved for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is exempt from the caps. To slake the Pentagon's thirst for dollars, Congress has been cramming non-wartime funds into the OCO, which are normally supposed to be included in the base defense budget.
This has effectively turned the OCO into a slush fund and allowed the gluttony to continue at taxpayer expense.
We have no idea what the OCO is spending money on, since it's mostly opaque. What we do know, at least now, is how extensively it's been debauched. Inside Defense caught the Pentagon in an astonishing admission: of its $64 billion in wartime funding, $30 billion is being spent on "requirements associated with a forward presence and readiness that will likely continue after current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria conclude."
In other words, almost half of the OCO is funding programs that aren't covered by the OCO, far more than the Pentagon initially let on.
"DOD is effectively acknowledging that it misled Congress and the public in its budget submission," budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Inside Defense.
The Pentagon previously voiced opposition when Congress tried to force base funding into the wartime fund, and yet they were doing it themselves the entire time. Now, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (Texas), the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is furious — not because the Pentagon is spending too much, but because it did so via its own shenanigans rather than accepting those recommended by Congress.
It's a civil war between cheap budget gimmicks, and fiscal responsibility isn't even a consideration. The only question is what interchangeable account the money will come out of next.
Thornberry is correct that the military's devaluing of its own wartime fund is reprehensible, an affront to our service members who really do need a flexible account of their own. But the issue here is even greater than just budget trickery, as outrageous as that is.
The Pentagon has vastly exceeded its mission as a war department. It's spending far too much money on all the wrong things. It runs schools, microbreweries and grocery stores. It funds breast cancer research and fishing studies. It's hosted "Star Trek" workshops and a reality cooking show. And it has hefty pension liabilities for retirees.
In other words, it's just as expansive as every other federal agency, but with one glaring exception: the Defense Department has been required to open its book for a full audit every year since 1995, and it never once has.
We might be more at ease if the military's own internal bookkeeping system was doing the job, but it’s a total shambles. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the U.S. Army alone in 2015 couldn't account for — are you ready for this? — $6.5 trillion in taxpayer money.
And we're supposed to inhibit transparency even further with the secret OCO? This is madness.
Congress needs to rein in the OCO, double down on the budget caps and insist that the books come open next year — no more procrastinating, no more excuse-making. They also need to return to regular order, under which budgets are passed every year, rather than rushed through as a patchwork of continuing resolutions.
Supporting our troops means funding them, yes, but it also means making sure that we don't bankrupt their futures.
Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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