De­fense Depart­ment flunks its first au­dit

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NATION - By Mark DeSaulnier Mark DeSaulnier, a Demo­crat, rep­re­sents Con­tra Costa County in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the ed­i­tor at SFChron­i­cle.com/letters.

Our na­tion spends more on de­fense than on any other area of gov­ern­ment. When rank­ing na­tions by mil­i­tary ex­pen­di­tures, the United States spends more on our mil­i­tary than the next seven coun­tries com­bined. Since 2001, the Depart­ment of De­fense bud­get has gone from $456 bil­lion to more than $700 bil­lion. De­fense ac­counts for roughly 50 per­cent of dis­cre­tionary spend­ing.

Con­gress has been call­ing on the Depart­ment of De­fense since 1990 to con­duct a full-scale au­dit of ev­ery pro­gram and ex­pen­di­ture — just like ev­ery other fed­eral agency is re­quired to do. Con­gress has been re­buffed time af­ter time un­til now.

In mid-Novem­ber, the Depart­ment of De­fense pub­lished the find­ings of its first-ever, full-depart­ment au­dit. The re­port ne­glected to ask the nec­es­sary ques­tions to pro­vide an­swers that Con­gress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple need.

The au­dit re­port it­self is both overly sim­plis­tic and overly com­pli­cated. It uses a lot of words and few num­bers to de­scribe what the sec­re­tary of de­fense refers to as “chal­lenges we must over­come.” The Depart­ment of De­fense has ac­knowl­edged that some in­ef­fi­cien­cies were found, but was quick to say that many were cor­rected and that there are plans in place to fix oth­ers. In short, the Depart­ment of De­fense has dis­missed the au­dit’s find­ings.

I have re­fused to vote in fa­vor of in­creas­ing de­fense spend­ing with­out ev­i­dence that it is needed, and I have been among those per­sis­tently press­ing for this au­dit. Al­le­ga­tions of wide-rang­ing waste­ful spend­ing are com­mon and ex­treme.

For ex­am­ple, in De­cem­ber 2016, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that the Depart­ment of De­fense buried an in­ter­nal study by the De­fense Busi­ness Board ex­pos­ing $125 bil­lion in bu­reau­cratic waste. The board’s anal­y­sis con­cluded that the Depart­ment of De­fense “was spend­ing al­most a quar­ter of its $580 bil­lion bud­get on over­head and core busi­ness op­er­a­tions” — money that could be saved by in­sti­tut­ing board-rec­om­mended re­forms, all of which could have been cor­rected in five years and with­out lay­offs or re­duc­tions in mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

Imag­ine spend­ing that money in­stead on pro­grams that are needed — like wild­fire preven­tion, health care, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion or ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity.

Pos­si­bly more dif­fi­cult than get­ting some of my col­leagues in Con­gress to fund good pro­grams is to get them to stop fund­ing un­nec­es­sary ones. In 2014, the Depart­ment of De­fense re­quested that the air­craft car­rier Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, which was near­ing the end of its use­ful life, not re­ceive fund­ing to be over­hauled. De­fense of­fi­cials in­di­cated they were go­ing to re­tire the car­rier. In­stead, Con­gress pressed for­ward with the over­haul­ing and nu­clear re­fu­el­ing at the cost of about $4 bil­lion.

In an­other ex­am­ple, the in­de­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice es­ti­mated that about half of the in­ven­tory be­long­ing to one in­ter­nal Depart­ment of De­fense agency was just waste — waste es­ti­mated to be worth al­most $14 bil­lion.

How is it that Depart­ment of De­fense’s first au­dit didn’t find this waste?

The an­swer: They weren’t look­ing.

The way au­dits of fed­eral agen­cies are con­ducted is not help­ful. Au­di­tors search for dis­crep­an­cies be­tween what the depart­ment was given to spend and what was ac­tu­ally spent on par­tic­u­lar pro­grams. While that can be in­for­ma­tive, it is not help­ful to start to un­ravel decades of mis­sion creep, un­nec­es­sary pro­grams and pro­cure­ment in­ef­fi­cien­cies.

We need an un­bi­ased ac­count­ing of whether the pro­grams them­selves are waste­ful. Could we have saved money by build­ing a ves­sel in a dif­fer­ent state? Is the most ex­pen­sive weapons sys­tem the best weapons sys­tem?

The Depart­ment of De­fense ul­ti­mately agreed to do an au­dit be­cause its lead­er­ship knew the find­ings wouldn’t be use­ful. Rec­om­men­da­tions for a deeper re­port would be met with strong op­po­si­tion. The Depart­ment of De­fense does not want to be man­aged by Con­gress or jus­tify the bil­lions of dol­lars in waste­ful spend­ing that are sure to be un­cov­ered in a gen­uine au­dit.

It would hurt the agency’s rep­u­ta­tion and could force spend­ing cuts.

Un­til we ask DoD the right ques­tions, we will not get the an­swers Con­gress needs and the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve.

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