By Tim Starks
“When it comes to the Pentagon, if it’s worth spending, it’s worth overspending,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The spending watchdog group’s vice president talked about the Pentagon No. 2′s complaints about Congress leaving a $70 billion hole, as well as the most wasteful national security program and more in a conversation Friday.
What was your reaction to Robert O. Work complaining about Congress putting the Defense Department in a $70 billion hole?
There’s two sides to that. He’s right that certainly Congress has tied the Pentagon’s hands when they’ve come up with some savings plans, like retiring weapons systems or Congress telling them to increase the buy, denying them the reforms to the commissary, making it more difficult for the Pentagon to live within its means. That said, his solution was basically more Overseas Contingency Operations money and that becomes relatively permanent and of a large scale. Things that should have been in the base budget have crept back into OCO over the years, at a higher level. I don’t think that’s appropriate either.
If you could pick one thing Congress would fix to get spending under control — particularly national security spending — what would it be and why?
Looking at particularly on national security spending, this mirrors some of the issues we face as a nation on entitlement reform, but clearly compensation has to be tackled to get the Pentagon budget under control. Starting with the late 90s, there was a large increase in the level of compensation, like not requiring increases in TRICARE premiums for working-age vets or even generally. That’s crowding out bullets and equipment.
Is there any particular project in the defense/national security/foreign policy world that stands out as the most wasteful, and if so, what makes it so bad?
Wow, you’re making me pick among my children — my naughty children, that is. It’s hard to look past the F-35, particularly when you add up both the procurement costs and also what the Pentagon just came out with as far ongoing maintenance and operational costs, you’re looking at a platform that costs — and GAO thought that might be too low — $1.5 trillion. We still have very, very capable aircraft; we can we do that [the F-35’s job] with a mix of F-18s and F-15s. That would provide us with an extremely capable force, still most capable in the world, with the best trained pilots and best equipment. It’s like the Willie Sutton rule of budgeting: “Why do you rob banks?” “That’s where the money is.” With pentagon waste, I might want to talk the Littoral Combat Ship, or some of the ground vehicles, but you have to look at the F-35 as far as total wasteful spending.
What is your expectation for what the war against ISIS will do to the U.S. budget?
Considering the hawks in the Pentagon have been trying to find every opportunity to roll back the limits of the BCA [Budget Control Act] and bipartisan budget agreement, this is the cudgel they’re really looking for as far as increasing OCO spending or trying to scrap the caps entirely. That’s going to be a major legacy of the war against the Islamic State and how people are trying to use it and take advantage of that situation. If you look at the tempo of operations, $3.5 billion a year — and there could be other costs that could increase — it doesn’t seem like, when you’re looking at half a trillion Defense budget, that that’s worth busting the caps.