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outdated before they are ever flown, money that would be better spent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?


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

"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

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

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.

© 2023 The Nation