Each year the Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases its “Additional Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits” report, which is a really long name for a list of ways the federal government could stop squandering our money.
This year’s report clocks in at nearly 300 pages, with a substantial portion addressing waste in the Department of Defense (DoD), which alone accounts for nearly half of Washington’s discretionary spending. Though the Pentagon is all too often treated as a sacred cow in the federal budget, immune to even the commonsense accountability of a full audit, the GAO’s findings show that there is plenty of fat to trim.
Worse yet, this money is being diverted from actually important DoD spending. While Washington wastes, marines are literally scrounging up airplane parts at museums.
Here are three important reforms from the report:
- Stop buying stuff we don’t need. Last year, the Pentagon spent $118 million to dispose of excess conventional ammunition. In plainer terms: Our government dropped more money than most of us will have over the course of our entire lives to get rid of extra bullets. Oh, and that’s after the DoD already took the GAO’s advice to send some of its extra stuff to other government agencies that wanted it.
The GAO recommends “that DOD develop a systematic means to make information available to other government agencies on excess ammunition,” a plan the Pentagon agreed to do last year and then did not do. Perhaps, however, an even better plan would be to not purchase unneeded ammunition in the first place. While transferring these materials is cheaper and less wasteful than simply destroying them, do we really need to send military-grade weaponry to agencies like the Departments of Education and Agriculture?
- Keep better track of what we do buy. Acquisitions reform—changing how the military buys stuff—is theoretically underway in Congress right now, so it is no surprise that it shows up in this report, too. Each year the Pentagon spends more than $100 billion on weapons procurement, but (as you might have guessed from that $118 million to get rid of extra ammunition), a lot of what it buys should never be bought, because it is duplicative, or outdated, or just not what we need right now.
The GAO recommends “weapon system portfolio management,” which means keeping better track of purchases and making sure there’s no overlap in these costly investments. Similarly, the report also suggests that the DoD do a better job communicating with itself on purchases like satellite leasing, where lack of coordination is costing taxpayers millions.
- Shut down bases—especially overseas—that have become an unneeded distraction. The DoD owns a lot of property, but not all of it is an asset to our defense. In fact, by the Pentagon’s own estimate, about 30 percent of its infrastructure has outlived its usefulness and has become more a source of nuisance than strength. The GAO takes a similar view, particularly recommending “closing, consolidating, or realigning European installations” that just aren’t necessary anymore.
This process is called Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), and it has been done before with significant success. “We’re avoiding $2.9 billion in expenses every year from the BRAC rounds we’ve already done,” says Lt. Gen. John Cooper, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection. But, Cooper adds, a new round of BRAC is overdue: “We have too much [property], it’s too old and it’s too expensive.”
So if the DoD and GAO agree, why hasn’t it happened? The short answer is Congress, which has steadily refused to consider base closures—especially (conveniently) in representatives’ home districts—repeatedly denying the Pentagon’s requests for even modest closure plans.
If congressional obstinacy on this point continues, however, the GAO has another idea: “DOD could potentially achieve millions of dollars in savings by identifying and implementing actions to increase use of underutilized facilities,” like renting the space to other government agencies or outside tenants, or making sure the DoD is not itself leasing space while properties it already owns sit unused.
That would be better than nothing, but the real goal here should be unloading bases that don’t add to our security. Wasting time and money buying, destroying, and managing stuff we don’t need is no way to keep America prosperous—or safe.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.