The best tool to prevent the government from wasting taxpayer dollars is exposure. The more the public knows about how elected officials are spending their money, the tougher it becomes for that money to be wasted. This is certainly the case when it comes to Pentagon spending, and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has been a stalwart advocate of transparency when it comes to how the Department of Defense (DoD) spends tax dollars. Just recently, TPA highlighted more than 180 earmarks that totaled more than $7 billion in the Omnibus-spending bill, just for DoD alone. Now, with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning it’s lengthy process from markup to final passage, it is time to turn attention towards a piece of legislation that is continually passed by Congress, yet continually put together behind closed doors in the Senate.
The House Armed Services Committee will begin their full markup of the NDAA today, and we have already seen a summary of what HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is ready to put on the table. Looking to spend more than $600 billion this time around, there is certainly onus on Congress to proceed not only carefully, but openly. The full House NDAA markup will be available, as it has been since Congressman McKeon began chairing the HASC in 2011. Unfortunately, without full transparency in both the House and the Senate, taxpayers are left holding the bag on a more than half a trillion dollar piece of legislation that is essentially put together by a small group of elected officials seeking whatever means necessary in order to make sure it can reach final passage without it ever seeing any sunlight until after it’s already signed into law. Retiring Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) laid down a familiar marker early this year when discussing the possibility of opening up the Senate process in marking up the NDAA. Roll Call detailed Senator Levin’s opposition where he cited classification concerns:
The fiscal 2015 defense authorization will be his last, and though half of the panel’s subcommittees opened their doors last year, “time consuming security procedures preclude us from going back and forth from open session to closed session” whenever classified issues are raised in the full committee markup, he wrote in a Jan. 8 response to an earlier Standing Committee request to open the markup.
This is not only a weak excuse, but it’s also counterproductive. The classification process is extremely important to preserving the national interest when it comes to keeping specific information secret, but to abuse the process as a means of keeping the markup of the NDAA behind closed doors is irresponsible. TPA believes that the Senate do as the House and allow the NDAA to be open in Congress as a whole. Earlier this year, a large coalition led by the Project on Government Oversight sent a letter to Capitol Hill to let every member of Congress know that the need for transparency on the NDAA in both chambers was a transpartisan issue, and one that has become a major priority for many groups:
All congressional proceedings should be conducted in accordance with our country’s highest principles of transparency and openness. Certainly, there are special exceptions when a committee can and should move to closed session to consider classified information, but this step should be taken only as needed and as infrequently as possible. Notably, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) did not close last year’s markup of the NDAA for national security reasons, at all.
The precedent has been set by the HASC and the Senate has a unique opportunity to show that transparency trumps process, regardless of the issue. Last year TPA was engaged in a number of battles when it came to how open the process would be in Congress on some of the most consequential legislation. Even though last year’s House bill allowed a limited number of amendments, it was a victory considering that ‘limited’ meant 100 amendments were voted on. A far cry from what the Senate allowed; with the ultimate result being a closed-door approach, and in-turn produced poor legislation. The Senate’s ‘fast-tracked’ process is exactly the type of problem that should concern many taxpayers as we move toward a new NDAA bill that authorizes more than $600 billion.
The question is whether it will be hurried through Congress with no real opportunity for a full and open amendment process? Last year the Senate did just that. The fundamental problem with the NDAA is that there are real cuts to be made when it comes to the Pentagon budget and yet lawmakers appear to be numb to that clear fact. The authorization process (and specifically) the NDAA is the first step I accountability and opportunity to save taxpayer dollars.
The blatant waste at the DoD is something TPA has highlighted many times over the last few years and yet time and again we see legislation that is disguised as “compromise” when all it does is compromise the integrity of the government’s ability to spend taxpayer money wisely. Bad process yields disappointing results, and a process that lacks transparency is bad from the start. Taxpayers can’t afford to keep paying for bad legislation, and TPA remains focused on fighting for a full and fair accounting of how the NDAA will be marked up in both the House and the Senate. This kind of reform doesn’t cost anything, and it’s so easy that half of Congress has already figured it out. The House has done what they can to ensure that sunlight doesn’t come at the price of classified information, the time has now come for the Senate to follow suit. TPA hopes that Senator Levin will pledge to conduct business on the NDAA in an open and transparent process so that taxpayers are no longer left in the dark when it comes to the crucial decisions that made regarding their money being spent on their security.