We should rethink what we already spend on defense, not break budget caps
Tom Coburn and William Ruger
What was scheduled to be partisan brinksmanship on the federal budget is now on the verge of being an exercise in bipartisan fiscal irresponsibility.
President Obama had drawn a red line by vetoing the recently passed defense authorization act while clearly stating that he wouldn’t sign another continuing resolution. Instead, he demanded an increase in spending for both domestic and defense spending. Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress shared the president’s view and wanted to break, directly or indirectly, the bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps. Now they are rushing to raise spending and upend a constructive example of bipartisan fiscal restraint — they will likely do so within the week.
When it comes to defense spending, officials on both sides of the aisle are well-intentioned. Americans want — and we need — to have the strongest and most sophisticated military in the world in order to keep us safe. But will extra spending make us safer? And is it necessary to give up even this modest financial discipline?
Unfortunately, lost in the debate over the right amount of money to add to the defense budget, it seems, is a thoughtful consideration of whether we could more wisely spend what has already been allocated. Looking at the defense budget, it doesn’t take long to see that the best course is for Congress to stick firmly to the BCA cap.
First, there is still too much wasteful spending by the Department of Defense despite decades of hand-wringing. For example, the DoD spent $36 million on a headquarters building in Afghanistan that according to the government itself was “unwanted, unneeded, and unused.” It is also spending $80 million on an “Iron Man” suit that sounds far-fetched to say the least. And in a misguided attempt to build a “green” fleet, the Navy bought algae-based fuel at $26 dollars a gallon, compared to traditional fuels that cost only a few dollars a gallon.
Second, the acquisition and procurement systems are broken and need to be revamped. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted last year that DoD weapons systems programs were on average two years behind schedule and in total $448 billion over budget. The massively expensive, late and allegedly “too big to fail” F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is only one of the many examples of budget busters in our current arsenal. Worse, some never even get off the ground or into the fight. For example, we spent billions on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle before correctly sidelining it due to a host of problems and cost overruns.
Third, a lack of transparency in the current process ensures this waste will continue unabated. An important step in solving this would be an accurate financial audit, since the DoD’s financial management is on the government’s own “high risk list.” The GAO puts agencies on this list when they are vulnerable “to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation.” Congress finally mandated that this careless accounting be solved by 2017, and it needs to hold military leaders’ feet to the fire or Americans will continue to spend good money on wasteful projects.
Fourth, dollars aren’t being focused on defense priorities. Too often the defense budget is used to push non-military objectives or on things that would best be provided outside the military. For example, the military runs one of the largest grocery store networks: the military commissary. This outdated system obscures the fact that there are numerous options in the market, especially for retirees who make up a big chunk of defense commissary sales. The government also used the Pentagon to promote its green agenda and GM’s bottom-line when it expanded its expensive electric vehicle fleet. The military is also involved deeply in medical research unrelated to health issues specifically related to its special missions and often duplicative of work being done elsewhere. Whether some of these things ought to be done isn’t the point. It is that they should be done outside the defense budget, so that the military can focus on national defense and protecting Americans, rather than do bad impressions of Whole Foods, the U.S. auto industry, and the Sierra Club.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, correctly put his finger on the basic problem back in 2014, noting that we need to “get more defense value out of the money we spend.” We’ve had a few successes, including moves to cut headquarters staff, the use of better logistical systems at Air Force depots and in the Air Force’s non-tactical vehicle reduction program.
Yet as long as we keep talking about adding to the budget without first asking what we’re paying for, we undercut any wide-scale incentive on the part of defense officials to take these things seriously. As the GAO itself noted, “too often we report the same kinds of problems today that we did over 20 years ago.” The budget cap is a modest but meaningful attempt to incentivize more serious thinking about getting more bang for the buck. We can’t retreat now or we will again be raising these problems in another 20 years. Meanwhile, our fiscal problems — identified by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen as the greatest national security threat to the U.S. — will only get worse.
Dr. Tom Coburn, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, is the honorary chairman of American Transparency. William Ruger is the Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.