By TIMOTHY R. HOMAN
With tax season upon us, some Americans might be worried about being audited by the federal government. That hasn’t been a concern of the Army for the past, oh, 240 years.
But that’s about to change. The largest of the U.S. military services says that in the coming months it expects to have the bulk of its financial documents ready for scrutiny.
“The Army has never been able to audit our books in our 240-plus year history, and now we’re going to be able to assert that we’re able to do that for our appropriated funds in just the next couple months,” Kristyn Jones, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for financial information management, said last week, according to Federal News Radio. “To me, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Others have a different take on the Defense Department’s heretofore exclusionary status.
“It’s shocking that the Pentagon hasn’t been audited and isn’t even auditable yet,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog in Washington. “They alone are more than the rest of the federal government in terms of discretionary spending.”
An audit of the Defense Department as a whole is still several years down the line. In the meantime, one hurdle for the Army is to get all of its accounting systems on the same page so that inspectors can make apples-to-apples comparisons.
Congress mandated that the Pentagon open its books for oversight by 2017. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he remains “fully committed” to making that happen.
So why the increased scrutiny – or scrutiny at all?
Jonathan Bydlak, president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, said the political climate in Washington has changed in recent years, particularly among Republicans. He said that while GOP lawmakers traditionally have talked a lot about the need for the federal government to be fiscally conservative, “the one area that’s kind of been a sacred cow has been Pentagon spending.”
“In the past, it would’ve been easy to sweep Pentagon spending under the rug,” Bydlak said. “There’s a realization now that that’s kind of hypocritical and the Pentagon should be looked at as you would any other department.”
Last year, the Marine Corps became the first of the services to pass an audit by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
The Government Accountability Office has had its eye on the Department of Defense for years, placing the agency on its biennial high-risk list every two years since 1995.
“Without accurate, timely, and useful financial information, DOD is severely hampered in making sound decisions affecting its operations,” the GAO said in its 2013 report. “Further, to the extent that current budget constraints and fiscal pressures continue, the reliability of DOD’s financial information and ability to maintain effective accountability for its resources will be increasingly important to the federal government’s ability to make sound resource allocation decisions.”
Sean Kennedy, director of research at Citizens Against Government Waste, said the Defense Department already has “a really awful acquisition record,” particularly when it comes to spending related to the F-35 jets, so an audit is very much in order.
“It’s just hard to imagine any other agency getting away with this,” he said. “Can you imagine the Department of Health and Human Services not being audited for decades at a time? It’s unfathomable.”