Defense Department flunks its first audit
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.