Defense spending accountability: Smarter for taxpayers, safer for troops

Posted: Dec 15, 2006 2:30 PM
Defense spending accountability:  Smarter for taxpayers, safer for troops

Last week, I was sorely disappointed that the House of Representatives failed to pass the most commonsense of bills – the Defense Spending Report Card Act. If there was ever an example of what is wrong with Washington it would be the lopsided vote of 70-330 by which this bill failed.

The Defense Spending Report Card simply would have required an accounting of Defense Department money spent on Congressional earmarks. The Department of Defense would have had to report the total annual cost of these initiatives, the purpose of each, and an analysis of how each initiative would advance the goals of the Department of Defense. Each Defense earmark would have had to withstand the spotlight long enough to justify its expense.

No one begrudges a single dollar spent to keep our troops well equipped and well trained, especially during a time of war when our highest priority is to help them complete their mission so they can return home safely and soon. But, good will towards the troops should not be an excuse for Congress or the Pentagon to turn the defense spending bills into an endless goody bag of pet projects.

Most projects that accomplish a legitimate Defense Department goal or work toward the statutory mission of the Department will be included in the President’s budget request, which is developed in close consultation with the experts at the Pentagon. There will be worthy projects left out of the budget request, but they will be few and far between, and more importantly, they will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the press, the American public, and the Congress if highlighted in a Defense Spending Report Card.

Especially in a time of war, defense dollars equal lives saved and a country kept safe. Money that our generals want to be used for body armor or missile defense shouldn’t be diverted in backroom deals in the dark of night. And, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, the FY07 defense appropriations bill included more than 2500 earmarks worth $12 billion. The Defense Spending Report Card Act would have helped Congress and the Department of Defense to weed out the useful from the frivolous, the good from the bad.

The Defense Department budget has long been one of the most complex and difficult to decipher. Though the Defense Spending Report Card Act may not be available to Congress in the coming year to help decode that budget, it is my hope that a new Secretary of Defense and a fresh perspective at the highest levels in the Pentagon will translate into greater accountability in the Defense Department budget overall.

When President Bush came to office in 2001, the Department of Defense announced it would add $100 million to its budget as a down payment on improved financial management. Yet, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England testified before the Budget Committee earlier this year, the Department was unable to even complete a proper financial statement. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the Department had failed to track the spending provided by Congress through supplemental appropriations despite the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, which mandated that all Federal departments be able to perform this kind of record keeping. The Department of Defense conceded the truth of that GAO report.

As a member of the Budget Committee, I wrote the Secretary Rumsfeld to express my concerns about the Department’s inability to institute even the most basic of accounting practices. The response I received was in part promising – in that it acknowledged the problems and expressed a commitment to improvement – and in part disheartening – in that it noted that progress has been slow and remains far from its goal. For instance, the Department noted that it has “received favorable audit opinions on 16% of departmental assets and 48% of departmental liabilities,” with a plan “to increase these favorable opinions to 69% of assets and 80% of liabilities by 2009.” Again, I’m pleased to see the commitment to improvement, but these numbers are less than encouraging.

The tasks before our new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, will be many and daunting. And, I have high hopes for his commitment to continue to improve basic standards of accountability at the Pentagon. But, Congress must own up to its role in this process as well, and must commit itself as well to reforming the ways of Washington and ensuring accountability in all Federal spending, including that headed for the Pentagon.