Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserts that the “most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
The money we spend on weaponry — and the fingers that fire them — is staggering. For example, the 2012 Department of Defense budget (more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China) was almost 100 percent of the U.S. deficit that year.
Neo-con foreign policy is expensive — we are shooting a quarter million bullets for each dead Afghani and Iraqi insurgent — however those military excursions “only” cost Uncle Sam about $90 billion in 2013, and these war-making expenditures fall outside of Defense Department budget accounting.
At first look, spending on defense and homeland security appears to be about 20 percent of the government’s budget, or about $552 billion in 2013. But wait, there’s more.
The Pentagon spends an additional $63 billion for the Veterans Administration, $35 billion for Homeland Security, and $10 billion for military construction. There’s also $14 billion for what’s called “international security assistance”— armaments and training the U.S. offers foreign governments — plus $2 billion for “peacekeeping operations,” tax dollars sent overseas to help fund military operations handled by international organizations and our allies.
There are additional expenditures that would make this accounting more comprehensive and complex, but this sub-total — $766 billion — is accurate enough to make my point.
Well, accurate may be a stretch. In 1995, the General Accountability Office (GAO), the federal budget independent investigative agency, estimated the Pentagon’s financial oversight to be at “high risk.” In 2000, the GAO found that nearly a third of the accounting entries in the Defense Department’s budget were untraceable. In 2009, the GAO said its auditors “have continued to report significant weaknesses in the department’s ability to provide timely, reliable, consistent, and accurate information for management analysis, decision-making, and reporting.” The next year, the GAO found that half of the Pentagon’s $366 billion in contract awards were never even completed.
And yes, the outrageous procurement fumbles, dubbed “golden hammers” in the ‘80s (the Pentagon was caught spending $485 for a hammer), continue without embarrassment:
- Since 2004, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan spent $370 million on spare parts for vehicles operated by the Afghan National Army, but it can’t account for $230 million worth of the components.
- A defense contractor that made millions off the Iraq war, charged American taxpayers $4,500 for a circuit breaker that cost $183 at an appliance store, and $900 for a control switch that cost seven dollars.
- The Pentagon spent a cool $100,000 for a 2011 workshop on interstellar space travel that included a session entitled, “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?” The session probed how Christian theology would apply in the event of the discovery of aliens.
Now the Obama administration is proposing some budget cuts for the military that include saving seven billion dollars over a 10-year period by a one percent reduction in cost-of-living adjustments for working-age military retirees. The House killed that measure by a lopsided 326-90 vote. (Incredibly, only 20 percent of the defense budget is actually spent on defense and security: almost all the rest goes to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, housing, and other personnel benefits.)
So where were those liberal Democrats with the knee jerk reaction of opposing the GOP-Pentagon-Industrial complex? Well, not so fast. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) pleads, “Although Iraq is over (huh?), and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, we can’t allow Congress to dismantle the programs they created over the past 12 years.” Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) insists, “We have to make sure we evaluate what the cuts are to make sure they don’t make us weaker,” but he admits (probably looking over his shoulder at his District), “you also have to look at the jobs.”
Of course the very idea of reducing the Pentagon’s budget has neo-con Republicans running about with their hair on fire. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sputtered, “Every American, Republican, Libertarian, vegetarian, Democrat – we all love the troops, but your Congress is expressing that love in a very strange way. How far have we fallen? Do we have no shame?”
In reality, politicians of both parties have funded tanks and aircraft the military doesn’t even want and fought against home turf base closings despite any strategic necessity. They have consistently approved bigger pay increases for service members than the government has requested.
The heart of the problem is transparency and accountability. Last December, Reuters News Service published investigative reporter Scot Paltrow’s series, “Unaccountable: the high cost of the Pentagon’s bad bookkeeping.” Paltrow wrote:
With its efforts to build reliable accounting systems in disarray, the Pentagon isn’t likely to meet a congressionally mandated 2017 deadline to be audit-ready. All other federal agencies are audited annually, in accordance with a 1990 law, and with rare exceptions, they pass every year. The Pentagon alone has never been audited, leaving roughly $8.5 trillion in taxpayer dollars unaccounted for since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited.
Last summer, a bill to force an audit of the Pentagon was introduced by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). It requires the Department of Defense to obtain a clean audit opinion in 2017 — if it fails, the agency that cuts the checks for the Pentagon would move to the Treasury Department. Coburn agreed with Admiral Mike Mullen when he noted, “Auditing the Pentagon is critically important not just because it is the law, but also because our ignorance of how we spend defense dollars undermines our national security.”
However, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) cautions, “They’ve been talking about having an audit for 30 years probably. They’ve now said it’s coming in 2017. And my guess is that in 2016 it’s going to be 2024, in 2023 they’ll tell us it’s going to be 2030. But I bet you if we said next year you’ve got to meet this sequester, maybe then all of a sudden they’ll say ‘Well why don’t we jettison some of the crap here we’re doing we don’t need?’ They’ll never do it unless their top line number is reduced.”
Perhaps the key to breaking the Defense Department’s hold on the U.S. treasury is just a matter of manipulating egos. There’s a story about Defense Secretary Neil McElroy warning Dwight Eisenhower that budget cuts would harm national security and the president replies, “If you go to any military installation in the world where the American flag is flying and tell the commander that Ike says he’ll give him a gold star for his shoulder if he cuts the budget, there’ll be such a rush to cut costs that you’ll have to get out of the way.” Short of that approach, those who believe in reducing the size, cost, and aggressiveness of government — conservatives — should be leading the charge when it comes to pruning the Pentagon‘s budget.
Peter B. Gemma has been published in a variety of venues including USA Today (where more than 100 of his commentaries have appeared), Military History, the DailyCaller.com, The Washington Examiner, and the EconomicPopulist.org.