Pentagon: “Spending Dollars Like It Doesn’t Matter”

Tuesday, the Washington Post published a troubling article on an internal Pentagon report detailing over $100 billion in “bureaucratic waste.” To anyone with even a passing acquaintance to Washington’s bloated agency culture, tales of personnel-heavy back-offices, civilian contractors averaging six-figure-plus salaries, costly administrative contacts, duplication, and inefficiencies should come as no surprise. What is remarkable are the lengths to which Pentagon officials went to try to ensure this report would never see the light of day.

The Washington Post describes how the January 2015 report, commissioned by the Pentagon, laid out a strategy for saving $125 billion in personnel and technology costs over five years, but “senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.” This was done despite the urgent need for spending restraint and reforms, especially under the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) spending caps aimed at forcing agencies like the Pentagon to prioritize spending needs. The article explains:

But some Pentagon leaders said they fretted that by spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds. Instead of providing more money, they said, they worried Congress and the White House might decide to cut deeper.

Even before the report was finalized, the team putting it together ran into internal roadblocks as “several Pentagon offices delayed requests for data.” To keep the report under wraps, the Pentagon “imposed secrecy restrictions on the data,” and took a public summary offline. Briefings were cancelled and Pentagon leadership met inquiries with silence.

There’s room to dispute report specifics. It’s conceivable that projected savings could be too low or too optimistic; that proposed changes could prove more difficult to implement than originally assumed, or have unintended consequences. However, the Pentagon’s response to the report demonstrates a systemic opposition to the mere discussion of waste reduction, and a culture driven more by top-line-dollar figures than security.

It should also be noted that Pentagon officials argued Congress is the main obstacle, when it comes to reducing Department of Defense overhead. The article reports Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work said that “the board fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it is to eliminate federal civil service jobs – members of Congress, he added, love having them in their districts … .”

On top of this military Keynesianism, the Washington Post’s reporting depicts a troubling lack of transparency and accountability that enables institutional inertia at the agency trusted with our national defense.

$2.9 million in taxpayer funds were used to generate the report, though the contract “stipulated that none of the data or analysis could be released to the news media or the public.” It’s important to keep in mind that this report revealed little to nothing about national security or other top secret strategic concerns that arguably should remain classified. Taxpayers scored a win for government accountability only last week, when the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act rejected an attempt on the part of the Pentagon to further curtail Freedom of Information Act access. Based on the actions described in the article, it’s clear government watchdogs should press for more transparency.

This event also underscores the case for auditing the Pentagon. When a top Pentagon official pushed back against the report findings, insisting that he needed more people, not fewer, an expert behind the report responded, “If you don’t believe me, call in an auditor…They’ll tell you it’s even worse than this.”

Finally, this event vindicates NTU and our allies across the political spectrum, who are right to call for spending and waste reductions at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, these calls are often met by a chorus of naysayers who insist the BCA has “gutted” our Armed Services, and refuse to consider any cuts – even to questionable programs. The worst thing the Pentagon – and Congress – can do at this point would be to continue to ignore the problems this situation exposed. Avoiding the issues only permits further metastization, putting both our economy and security at risk.