Why is the Pentagon exempted from scrutiny?

Tom Schaller says conservatives looking for "waste, fraud and abuse" should make the Department of Defense their first stop

April 30, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

The most common complaint from people who email me about my columns is that the federal government is horrible: Too big and growing too fast, too corrupt and wasteful, and providing too many benefits to too many Americans. If we just shrink the government, they claim, the economy will boom.

Unfortunately, readers often apply these critiques to governmental spending so insignificant as to barely matter. Grants to ACORN or for the so-called "Obama phone" program are so minuscule they're laughable, no matter how incessantly the conservative media echo chamber reports and re-reports on these so-called "scandals." (For the record, the program providing low-cost or free phone service for the poor was created in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan's administration.)

Still: All this complaining about government corruption and waste and how it's dragging down our economy can't be totally unfounded, right? Surely there must be agencies and programs in the government where kickbacks, embezzlement, out-of-control spending, and massive government employee dependency are commonplace? Well, in fact, I found a few.

Did you know that private contractors doing business with one government agency are allowed, by law, to charge taxpayers up to $763,000 annually per contract employee — almost twice the president's annual salary? Or that there is an agency whose budget has grown more than 80 percent during the past dozen years? One government department spends fully one-fifth of all its payroll costs paying former federal employees who don't even serve the government any longer.

There's a government agency that somehow managed to lose more than $6 billion — in cash, no less — and still cannot account for what happened to the dough. Some top federal employees of one federal program were caught with sums of $360,000, $440,000 and $800,000 in cash they collected from either bribery schemes or contractor kickbacks.

If these fiscal outrages were not infuriating enough, one cabinet department recently informed the General Accounting Office (the federal agency that audits the government itself) that, unlike all other cabinet departments, it will not submit full financial auditing documents again until late 2017, more than four years from now.

Some readers may have guessed where I'm going with all this — to the Pentagon, because every one of the above examples relate to the Defense Department.

But somehow, other than the First-Ron-now-Rand Paul libertarian wing of the conservative Republican establishment, one hears almost no complaints from the supposedly fiscally austere, "eliminate waste, fraud and abuse" crowd about the cabinet department that employs more than half of all federal workers and pays the private sector sometimes obscene sums in what are often noncompetitive contracts.

Indeed, before the sequester even began, conservatives and Republicans called for exempting the Pentagon — which, to repeat, has nearly doubled its budget since 2000 — from the automatic spending cuts. The DoD accounts for nearly half of the world's defense spending. Imagine the blood-curdling screams from the fiscal austerity crowd if America accounted for nearly half the world's spending on student loans, food stamps, health care for the poor or disability insurance.

The good news is that the sequester, coupled with America's downsized presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, has actually reduced military spending significantly. In fact, the decline is big enough that the media are now reporting that liberals and Democrats face a strange paradox: slower economic growth rates caused by lower government spending.

But hey, that just means that the austerity movement and those who criticize Keynesian economic principles have been discredited once and for all. (Most of us knew this already, given Europe's slower growth rates.) Besides: We can always compensate for less spending on guns with more spending on butter, so to speak.

The right's near-silence about bloated, wasteful defense spending undermines its credibility in the national fiscal policy debate. It's hard to take seriously those who apply one standard for effective, efficient and smaller government to virtually every other program and agency of the federal government, while curiously — if tellingly — exempting the one department that should be near the top of the fiscal scrutiny list.

We can have a strong defense, support our troops and veterans, and do so without holding the Pentagon to different standards just because it has the unique and essential duty of defending the nation. That should be the goal.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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