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Shouldn't Congress Hold the Pentagon to Account?

Members of Congress who actually care about crafting a budget that keeps America secure at home and abroad are beginning to express frustration with the Obama administration's plan to hike the Pentagon's already bloated budget by four percent.

"I have a question as to whether we need defense spending to go up by as much as it is," Iowa Senator Tom Harkin told reporters after a budget briefing that left the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee of the powerful Appropriations Committee worried about where he would find the money to meet mounting demands for education and health care spending on the domestic front.

The Obama administration's willingness to let Department of Defense spending, which expanded at an exponential rate during George Bush's presidency, continue growing with few checks or balances does not sit well with grassroots groups that are worried about the devastating impact of the nation's economic downturn on urban and rural communities where so many needs went unmet during the Bush-Cheney interregnum.

"The Department of Defense has laid the welcome mat for rampant waste and excess," complained leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Hispanic Federation, the Black Leadership Forum, National Congress of Black Women, the National Council of Negro Women and the League of Rural Voters in a letter delivered Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. "Billions of dollars are being squandered on costly, faulty defense aircraft that may be outdated before they are ever flown, money that would be better spent in classrooms, emergency rooms and veterans hospitals."

Noting that "a few hundred billion dollars is a lot of schools and a lot of healthcare," League of Rural Voters executive director Niel Ritchie told The Hill newspaper this week that, "There can't be business as usual on appropriations, and the defense budget is one thing that has gone up and up, and that can't happen anymore." But is it realistic to talk about upending business as usual in a Congress that -- under Republican and Democratic leadership -- has so frequently failed to impose even minimal standards for accountability on the Pentagon?

Perhaps.

The Senate Budget Committee this week approved an amendment to the chamber's budget resolution that redirects $100 million in spending toward initiatives designed to recover erroneous payments to defense contractors and to the restructuring of acquisition programs. That's a small step in the right direction, but an important one -- as it begins a deeper discussion about Pentagon and defense contractor accountability.

"There is broad agreement that the contracting process in the Department of Defense has gotten out of control and has led to rampant waste, fraud and abuse," explained Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who sponsored the amendment with Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, another Democrat. "We need to reform this system, which is fraught with cost overruns, and strengthen contract oversight so we can deliver needed equipment on-time and on-budget to our service members deployed overseas."

There's no real doubt about the need for reform. The Office of Management and Budget recently determined that, over the past four years, the Pentagon failed to recover close to $300 million in erroneous contract payments. And those are just the mistakes that are admitted.

What about the cost overruns of defense contractors? According to the Government Accountability Office, 95 major weapons programs that are currently in play exceeded their original budget allocations. Cost to taxpayers: $295 billion.

Then there is the matter of weapons systems that are dramatically flawed and dysfunction, yet continue to acquire funding. The groups that wrote Reid and Pelosi focused, according to The Hill, on the need to make "steep cuts to the Joint Strike Fighter Program and other futuristic weapons plagued by production delays and cost overruns, with the money saved going to schools, healthcare and other social services." It is now estimated that the Joint Strike Fighter Program could cost as much as $1 trillion. Even in an era when Congress is getting comfortable spending a trillion here, a trillion there, now we're talking about real money.

And if some of that real money could be redirected from the accounts of fiscally irresponsible and abusive defense contractors to those of schools and hospitals, it might yet be well spent.

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