Can Anyone Fix the Mess in the Defense Budget?
By: Winslow Wheeler | September 15, 2006
This article, "The Mess in the Defense Budget: Congress Helped Make It. Will It Help Fix It?" appeared at the website of Mother Jones magazine on September 13.
U.S. defense spending will exceed $513 billion next year, the highest amount at any time since World War II. It also exceeds the rest of the world’s military spending—combined. The largest adversary anyone can point to—China—spends barely more than a tenth of what we do, and North Korea and Iran each spend roughly one percent.
Yet, U.S. military forces are smaller today than at anytime since 1945: in terms of Army divisions, naval combatants, and Air Force wings. This shrunken force is equipped with major hardware items that, on average, have been aging for two decades, and we have been sending U.S. forces into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan incompletely trained and equipped.
America’s defense spending is out of all proportion to any conceivable threat, and yet America’s forces are in real trouble.
How did it get this way?
Simple. The Pentagon’s management is incompetent, and Congress, which is ultimately responsible, doesn’t care.
The Nature of the Problem
Every three months, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rates federal agencies on five measures of governance. The "Executive Branch Management Scorecard" for March 2006 ranks the Department of Defense (DOD) "unsatisfactory," the worst rating, in three of five categories; in the other two, the best DOD could do was "mixed results." Of the 25 agencies rated, only Veterans Affairs did worse. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified more areas of managerial concern in the Pentagon than in any other cabinet-level department in its "High Risk" series of reports.
For decades, GAO and the Defense Department's Inspector General (DoD IG) have both reported that the Pentagon's financial transactions, supply system and payments to contractors are so chaotic that they cannot be audited. Note the wording: The Pentagon does not fail audits; it is un-auditable. It would literally be an improvement for it to be able to flunk an audit.
The Pentagon may be the worst managed agency in the federal government.
DoD’s procurement budget is riddled with programs that reflect this incompetence and make the problems worse. Although many describe it a wonder weapon, the F-22 is a prime example. The program was started in 1983 and quickly gained weight and cost, thus diminishing its performance as a fighter and the number we can afford. As the sticker price grew from less than $130 million to more than $360 million per aircraft, the proposed inventory shrank from 750 to 181. Nonetheless, the "modernization" plan of adding F-22s as we retire F-15s proceeded from one administration to the next. The F-15 inventory, initially more than 700 aircraft, is now aging faster than the F-22 will ever "replace" it. Moreover, a recent evaluation by one of the designers of the highly successful F-16 demonstrates with data the Air Force won’t show you that the F-22's design ignores the realities of air combat and compares unfavorably to aircraft we already have.
And, there you have it: a shrinking, aging, less capable force at increasing cost.
The above notwithstanding, the ultimate test is on the battlefield where some might think things have worked rather well. However, the lopsided victories of United States armed forces against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 were against an opponent that, with only minor exceptions, behaved in combat like a tethered goat led by a military jackass. Many have come to the same conclusion, including the U.S. Army’s War College in Carlisle, Penn., which studied Operation Iraqi Freedom and found the enemy’s incompetence to be the critical element in the initial American victory in 2003.
And yet, under-equipped remnants of these same incompetent armed forces together with an almost incoherent combination of insurgents from disparate religious sects, lands, and motivations have all combined—with and against each other—to confront the United States armed forces with a situation in Iraq that worsens each year.
It is so tempting to blame Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for it all. However, while he will go down in history as a prime architect of the unfolding disaster in Iraq, he did not cause our high cost, shrinking military forces or the Pentagon’s incompetent management. As decades of reports from GAO, CBO, and the DoD IG make abundantly clear, he inherited the problems from his predecessors, several of them Democrats.
Blaming secretaries of defense, even presidents, in our system of government is inappropriate, however. The American Constitution is not so misguided to assign the responsibility for repairing DoD’s handiwork to itself. The primary institution we should hold responsible is Congress.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., observed “The Founding Fathers supposed that the Legislative branch would play its part in preserving the balance of the Constitution through its possession of three vital powers: the power to authorize war; the power of the purse; and the power of investigation.” It is that power of investigation, rather “oversight,” that is supposed to hold secretaries of defense responsible for failures and to require changes, if not in the programs, then in the people. Moreover, the Constitution charges Congress, not secretaries of defense or presidents, to “raise and support armies,” ”provide and maintain a navy,” and “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”
For all of his foibles—which are legion—secretary Rumsfeld is not the ultimate culprit, it is Congress, which has been snoring deeply on the job.
Any inquiry into the exercise of Congress’ oversight of the defense budget inevitably leads to the issue of “pork”? the museums, athletic events, holiday celebrations, recreational parks, agricultural programs, etc. - that legislators add to the defense budget for their states. With 2,847 examples costing $9.4 billion, the pork add-ons to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2006 constitute the vast majority of modifications the House and Senate made to the defense budget.
The baubles are added by Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, moderates, males, females?virtually every single member of Congress. They generally perceive it as the most important thing they do when Congress considers defense legislation, and they require their staff to focus on it to the exclusion of almost all else. Literally, no time or mental energy is left for oversight to explore, let alone repair, the serious problems.
A good example occurred in February 2003. It was obvious that America was about to go to war in Iraq; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, were testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The first question the Chairman, John Warner, R.-Va., asked of Gen. Myers was whether US armed forces were ready to fight in Iraq. Myers responded, “Absolutely.”
This fifteen-second exchange was not the precursor to a lively dialogue; it was the totality of the hearing’s probe into the—literally—life and death question of military readiness during the pre-war build up. Had Warner or the horde of staffers sitting behind him in the hearing room bothered to scratch the surface, they would have found real problems. Shortly after this hearing, the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, sent a letter to Congress complaining that the U.S. Army was anything but “absolutely” ready. The Army budget was already $3.2 billion short for base operations, ammunition, and training. Since then, at soldiers’ expense we learned of other shortages: armored Humvees, body armor, shotguns and “quickie saws” for urban operations, desert boots, backpacks and “camelbacks,” sunglasses, machine gun repair parts, and lip balm are only a few of the things the troops said they needed more of, or something better.
They were all things a vigilant Armed Services Committee would have checked for. Instead, several senators at the hearing (including Hilary Clinton, D.-NY, Mark Pryor, D.-Ark., and Warner himself) directed their comments to home state pork. As a result, American soldiers were mutilated and died.
Unraveling the Mess
Most proposals this author has seen to reorganize Congress or change a few rules amount to little more than changing the room assignments in the bordello. What is needed is to change how members of Congress behave and think.
The saying goes in Washington, “Information is power.”
Today, members of Congress do not know how to get information or even what it is. They subsist on biased, unreliable, and incomplete “factoids.” To members and their staff on Capitol Hill these days, the penultimate validation of defense data, of understanding a weapon system, or probing the true state of affairs, for example, in Iraq is to find out what DoD says about it. Some who think they are getting the real skinny, ask military officers and DoD officials privately—some of them even critics of the official position on the matter at hand.
Knowing the officially approved spin or the spin of the critics does provide data points on any given issue, but not an accurate picture. Two opposing sides of biased information make for two flavors of baloney, not balanced and reliable information. Sorting out which side is right, if either, and getting to the bottom of the issues is not just a mystery to Congress, it is to be avoided: it can lead to places they do not want to go.
The first step to reform will require wholesale change in the primary mechanism members use to learn about defense issues: their staff.
Getting a Competent Staff: There is no such thing as Republican F-16 or a Democratic aircraft carrier. Then, why do the Armed Services Committees and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittees hire separate Democratic and Republican staffs. It is to interject partisanship into national security issues, especially at the base information level. National security information should not come in Democratic or Republican slants to members.
The handiwork of this system is currently available in the form of committee reports on legislation. As analysis of the issues, these are pitiful documents. A truly professional staff would feel itself insulted by such a public work product.
A competent professional staff for national security—or other—issues would have the following characteristics.
The individuals would have demonstrated competence not just in the subject area assigned to them, but also formal training or experience in evaluative techniques, such as auditing, program evaluation, or investigation. Today, members of Congress frequently hire ex-service pilots as aviation “experts,” but while such individuals may have the considerable brains and skill to fly modern aircraft, they have no knowledge or experience in how to buy or evaluate them.
The professional staff should work for members on both sides of the aisle. They should be hired and fired only by a joint decision of both the senior Democrat and Republican on a committee. They should also be afforded aggressive “whistleblower” protection (which they are now specifically denied).
The staff’s memoranda on all issues, especially all oversight issues, should be public documents, when they are not by necessity classified, and in all cases, their memoranda should be distributed to all members—not just on the committee where they work but to all members of the House and Senate. More members would be better informed, but much more important, it can be just amazing how exposure to those on more than one side of an issue and to the public can make a staffer think longer, harder, and better before he or she communicates with a member of Congress.
All national security staffers on Capitol Hill should be prohibited to accept any job with any defense manufacturer and especially DOD for at least five years after they leave Capitol Hill. Period. No exceptions. The biggest revolving door problem on Capitol Hill is not the members; it is the staff. Human nature is too frail to permit Boeing, Lockheed, or any defense manufacturer to dangle the prospect of future employment before, during, or after a staffer provides his analysis of candidates for a multibillion dollar defense contract. The prospect of employment with DOD is just as problematic. Presidents and their Pentagons are every bit as anxious as the commercial manufacturers to influence data and advice in Congress.
The whole point is to put before members of Congress accurate, objective information whether they want it or not, and to do so publicly, or – in the case of classified analysis - with the concurrent knowledge of many others. The members would still be free to follow their perceived political or local contractor-induced self-interest, but they will be doing so in the face of objective information, their own consciences, and easy public scrutiny. My experience of more than 30 years in Congress as a staffer tells me that such will not lead to perfection in congressional decision-making, but it will significantly improve things.
Oversight: Just Do It: With a competent professional staff, oversight should be a simple, but not necessarily easy, matter. One real problem is to convince members to conduct inquiries that explore an issue rather than lead to a pre-determined result. Another problem is to hold more than one hearing on major subjects, such as the solitary hearing the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee holds each year to “consider” the entire budget for the Navy and Marine Corps. Finally, something is needed to interest members in questions on subjects other than pork for their states.
With professionally written staff memoranda distributed to all members and the press (when the information is unclassified), chairmen would be under some pressure to probe the issues more thoroughly than today. More importantly, with a competent staff and public distribution of their memoranda, there will be less of a requirement to conduct oversight only via committee hearings. The memoranda will comprise a form of oversight in themselves.
One area that needs specific attention – and that could be a model for other areas – is how to perform oversight of “pork.” If Congress were to be truly interested in separating foolish ideas for spending in their states from the meritorious, the “pork” oversight process would routinely include the following:
An independent estimate of the cost of the proposal from the Congressional Budget Office for as many as five years.
An evaluation by GAO, or another reputable evaluation entity with no contract relationship with the Pentagon or the defense program in question, on the effectiveness and appropriateness of the proposed spending.
A requirement that any pork earmark that makes it through the above should only be awarded to a contractor after a nation-wide contract competition.
In short, rudimentary diligence should be applied to the spending members propose for their states. Perhaps, once Congress uses an appropriate process for pork, it might consider applying the same procedures to major weapons programs, a process now observed all but universally in the breach.
Accountability: A recent study of DOD’s decades long failure to be able to track its own money, supplies, and people – that is, to be financially accountable – concluded that the current state of affairs is simply “not acceptable.” The report states further –
If, indeed, the [Defense] Department’s senior managers are working toward achieving a favorable audit opinion by FY2007, Congress should hold them accountable. Specifically, Congress should call the comptroller to testify under oath on this promise. Congress should grant any additional authorities that the comptroller deems necessary to accomplish this goal, including the need to hire and fire those managers overseeing the programs. Given these responsibilities and authorities, the comptroller should be held accountable for producing financial statements that would conform to generally accepted accounting principles. If the result is to the contrary, then the comptroller/CFO should be treated as if he or she is running a private corporation, and it will be time for the President to find a replacement.
A Congress that observes basic diligence in oversight is also likely to impose similar standards on DoD. What better place to start than how the Pentagon handles the taxpayer dollars Congress appropriates to it and to insist that DoD know, record, and report what it did with the money. If Congress is not willing to insist on this basic competence, there is – quite literally – no hope.
Help the Press Do Its Job: None of this will work if the press does not do its job. Members of Congress live and die based what the press reveals to the public. Some of the steps listed above should make it easy to report who is doing aggressive, competent oversight (such as Senator McCain’s work on the Boeing tanker scandal) and who is not (currently a target rich environment). That will provide compelling motivation for members of Congress to get themselves on the side of the angels.
Of course, the chances that Congress will adopt the reforms recommended here are slim. However, they do provide a reference point for distinguishing real reformers from phonies.
The American political scene currently lacks a true reformer. Many believe I am wrong, and Sen. John McCain, who may be the next Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the real thing. I seriously doubt it. It is true, as indicated above, that he and his staff did an excellent job of oversight on the Boeing tanker scandal. They obviously know how to do it. But that is literally the grand total of their real oversight work. They claim to have done more of the same on the Air Force’s C-130J and the Army’s Future Combat System (both pigs for money but not effectiveness). However, in truth, all McCain and his staff did for those systems was to alter how the money flows to the contractor. They did not alter the content of the program, or even the amount of money paid; they only changed the plumbing for the money flow.
I hope I am wrong; that McCain will open the door even wider to his presidential ambitions by bringing real oversight to the committee he might chair next year. Indeed, what better evidence is there that a politician can be an effective Chief Executive than by showing he, or she, knows how to get beyond the baloney constantly being served up by the minions of bloat and ineffectiveness in Washington and that he, or she, is willing to act on valid and reliable information, regardless of whose rice bowl gets jiggled.
Or, perhaps some new dark horse will emerge to lead Congress out of its current morass. It will be interesting to see what happens.