In January of 2015, the Pentagon completed and promptly buried an internal report identifying $125 billion in wasteful spending that would accrue over the next five years.
Where taxpayers might greet such a document — which proposed saving those funds without laying off any civil service or military personnel — with approbation, The Washington Post revealed this week the Defense Department suppressed its findings for fear of giving Congress good reason to cut the agency’s supersized budget.
This willful profligacy is just the latest iteration of the fiscal misconduct characteristic of the Pentagon, which in form as well as function is the largest bureaucracy in the world, marked by all the inefficiencies that phrase implies. A “mere” $125 billion in waste would be a welcome relief from the true state of the DOD’s finances, bloated as they are with aging facilities and ballooning overhead, and growing unencumbered by the much-needed accountability a full audit could provide.
To allocate defense resources more efficiently, our military’s excess infrastructure is good place to begin addressing its waste, particularly because this is one area where the Defense bureaucracy is not the obstacle to reform. On the contrary, the DOD has been begging Congress to approve a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) for some time. Again and again Congress has denied that request, even specifically prohibiting expenditure of any funds on an audit to determine which facilities are outdated and unnecessary. That decision becomes all the more baffling in light of the fact that as much as 30 percent of Defense infrastructure is believed to be obsolete. For nearly two decades, the Pentagon’s property management system has been labeled by the Government Accountability Office a “high risk” program vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” These outdated buildings cost billions each year to maintain.
Then there’s the bureaucratic overhead, which Pentagon leadership consistently promises to cut — and then grows instead. This was central to the suppressed report’s recommendations. Fully a quarter of the Pentagon’s nearly $600-billion budget now goes to overhead operations “such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management,” the Post notes, with nearly as many people working desk jobs as there are active duty troops. A 2010 study produced by the same consultants behind the 2015 audit gave a similar warning, describing an “explosion of overhead work because the Department has failed to establish adequate controls to keep it in line.”
Of course, it is difficult to say exactly how much of that desk work is necessary without a full audit of the Defense Department, which has never occurred despite being annually required by law since 1990. That this smaller study was buried only “underscores the case” for a complete investigation of the Pentagon’s books, as argues the National Taxpayers Union’s Nan Swift. In theory, the results should be more difficult for government bureaucrats to conceal.
As for this $125 billion, it is worth noting that such a sum is larger than the annual budget of every other Cabinet-level federal agency. Even by Washington’s standards, this is not chump change. Still, the DOD was willing to sweep it under the rug.
That the report was suppressed, Swift says, “demonstrates a systemic opposition to the mere discussion of waste reduction, and a culture driven more by top-line-dollar figures than security.” And that’s the point: national security has been sacrificed to protect ever-expanding budgets.
For the incoming administration, the Post’s discovery is a major boon. President-elect Donald Trump — who has promised to “eliminat[e] government waste and budget gimmicks” once in office — should use the findings exactly as the Pentagon leadership anticipated: as proof that the DOD has fat to trim. The Trump White House should demand the Pentagon finally complete the full audit it has to date evaded (including a fresh BRAC evaluation) and use that information to create a lean, efficient military designed to fulfill its constitutional purpose of defense.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.