3 tough questions Congress failed to ask military leaders

Earlier this month, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the "State of the Military," inviting the vice chiefs of four of the five services to give testimony on the capabilities and funding the chiefs themselves believe necessary to improve their branches' readiness, modernization and training.

The hearing covered an immensely important topic, particularly at a time when the new administration is looking to reform the way the federal government spends money.

While committee hearings in general provide witnesses with time to lobby for their priorities, they are also designed for members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to ask the pointed, direct, tough and uncomfortable questions that would ordinarily be glossed over in the day-to-day beehive of Washington.

Unfortunately, the recent hearing itself didn't follow in that that tradition. The Armed Services Committee failed to ask any difficult questions at all.


The other side of the defense spending debate — why the Pentagon should be given a cash infusion of tens of billions when the auditors in the building can't track the funds already appropriated by Congress — was glaringly absent.


It's disconcerting that members failed to ask these three critical questions during the hearing:

1. Do you support a complete audit of the Pentagon?

The Department of Defense has had a luxury that other federal departments and agencies haven't: In 2010, it was given a seven-year hiatus from producing a clean audit to the Inspector General.

Despite concerns among many lawmakers that the Pentagon doesn't have the resources it needs to defend U.S. national security interests around the world, the department's $600 billion-plus budget is above average, going back to the Cold War (adjusted for inflation). The base budget has increased from $287 billion in 2001 to more than $600 billion today: a 109 percent increase.

Add the additional $59 billion in the overseas contingency operations account, and the increase is even higher.

That's a lot of money to monitor, and yet the Pentagon is doing a poor job of accounting for it. When the Inspector General has authorized an audit or a special commission has been asked to look for savings in the building, the results have been eye-opening to the civilian and military officials who work in the department.

To take the most recent example: A commission found that the Pentagon could save $125 billion over five years just by addressing its administrative overhead.

Committee members should have asked the vice chiefs to explain why Congress should authorize tens of billions of dollars in additional money before their civilian bosses find a way to clean up their act.

2. Is it smart for the U.S. military to be doing so much?

The U.S. military is the greatest, most professional, most dedicated and most technologically advanced joint force on the entire planet. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia look to the United States to defend them and reassure them during times of war and peace.

Throughout the past 15 years, U.S. troops have been ordered to perform more functions in more places around the world at a pace that is as quick as we've ever seen.

Soldiers are not only expected to fight, but also to act as advisers on the front lines, fill the role of military trainers in order to increase the capabilities of America's allies, funnel intelligence to partner nations, and act as diplomats in Iraq and social workers in Iraq and Afghanistan — building schools, hospitals, medical clinics, handing out soccer balls, keeping sectarian factions from killing one another, and protecting roads so Afghan civilians can travel on them without getting abducted, robbed and killed by insurgents and tribal militias.

It's a big reason why the United States composes 37 percent of the world's total defense allocations. It may also clue us in as to why 42 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Charles Koch Institute/Center for the National Interest poll would much rather see their tax dollars allocated toward addressing the debt rather than boosting the military's budget (12 percent).

Defense budgets should fund the missions Congress and the president ask the military to carry out. Regrettably, we all too often resemble passengers on a airplane that is riding on autopilot. Instead of merely accepting that our current defense strategy is sound, members of Congress should reassess and evaluate whether American men and women in uniform should wear multiple hats at the same time, doing everything, everywhere, as they are today.

For years, lawmakers have chosen to avoid playing the skeptic, effectively handing the Pentagon hundreds of billions of dollars on an annual basis without delving into the most critical question of all: Why are these tasks central to U.S. national security interests?

3. Why can't we close facilities that the Pentagon doesn't need?

You have to give the military brass credit: During a time of budget caps, they understand the need to make due with what they have and help themselves by finding savings to reinvest. For years, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the civilian secretaries of the services have begged Congress for another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.

In the words of the Pentagon's own officials, "the Department of Defense must stop wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure. We must right-size our infrastructure, capture the savings, and devote these savings to readiness, modernization, and other more pressing national security requirements."

Congress, however, hasn't been able to agree on another round of base closures. Members don't want to close facilities that would result in a short-term net loss of jobs in their districts. The political reality of worrying about an election cycle every two years doesn't exactly help representatives in the House shake up the status quo (though there are courageous lawmakers who are exceptions to the rule).

Talk of BRAC received a couple of minutes in a hearing that lasted over two-and-a-half hours — not the necessary amount of coverage that should be devoted to such a highly important defense reform topic.

Thankfully, it's only February. Plenty of opportunities exist in the year ahead for the Armed Services Committees to probe Defense officials on precisely these kinds of subjects.

The sooner they do, the better off our military — and the American taxpayer — will be.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat. He has written for The National Interest, Rare Politics and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @dandepetris.

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