On Tuesday, the U.S. Representatives passed a Pentagon budget that called for $700 billion in defense spending—more than what even the Trump administration had asked for, and tens of billions more than the current defense spending caps. To achieve this budget, which is expected to sail through the Senate after the Thanksgiving break, Congress will have to raise the caps set into place during the Budget Control Act. But if there is a will—which there certainly is, considering the powerful defense industry lobby, coupled with members’ own special interests for their districts—there is a way.
But how indeed does this money get spent? An open secret in Washington is that the Pentagon, by far the largest if not most byzantine agency in the federal government, has never been audited. Sure, Congress mandated in 1990 that it be audited, but not surprisingly, the leviathan agency never complied, with no consequences to speak of. Reports abound about bureaucracy, contractor pushback, and at least one “historic” Marine Corps audit in 2015 that turned out to be less than thorough due to internal politics. Bottom line, the audits just aren’t happening.
There is a movement among Congress’ few but determined reformers to force the Pentagon’s hand. Congressman Michael Burgess, a conservative Republican from Texas, recently introduced H.R. 3079, the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017, of which he is a co-sponsor. In the following interview with TAC, he explains why he introduced the bill and what he hopes to obtain from its passage.
TAC: You recently introduced H.R. 3079: Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017. Why is an audit of the Department of Defense of interest to you?
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen once said, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Years of spending have wreaked havoc on our fiscal health and the federal budget.
The first step to getting spending under control is a full audit of the federal government. The government-wide consolidated financial statement has not been capable of receiving an audit opinion because the Department of Defense has not been able to obtain an audit opinion.
In 1990, Congress passed the Chief Financial Officers Act requiring every Department and Agency in the Federal government to produce verifiable financial statements that can be fully audited. To date, each major agency has been able to complete this task except one— the Department of Defense. Congress has allowed the Department of Defense to get away with 26 years of noncompliance with the law.
It is time for that to end.
TAC: The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, requires all federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, to complete financial statements. The DoD is the only agency not to comply with the 1990 law. How will your bill change that fact and actually get the Pentagon to be audited?
No one can justify wasting the dollars that should be spent on our men and women in uniform, and the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017 will ensure that we are able to efficiently and effectively support our military at home and abroad. The bill would impose a discretionary spending penalty of 0.5 percent each fiscal year on any military service or defense agency that does not receive a qualified or unqualified audit opinion by an external independent auditor. Quite simply, the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017 is a bipartisan effort to hold the Pentagon accountable to the same standards to which we hold every other federal department.
TAC: What push back if any have you received for your bill? Are there any legitimate arguments against an audit in general and your bill in particular?
Our nation is facing a real crisis. The U.S. debt is teetering on the edge of $20 trillion, and our servicemen and women are finding themselves without all the resources required to fulfill their missions and defend our country. The Pentagon must conform to the same level of accountability to which other public sector agencies are held when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. There is no reason why the Department of Defense should remain the only federal agency to not receive an audit opinion.
To be clear: This effort is not an attempt to take money away from our Armed Forces. Rather, an audit of the Pentagon will bolster national security and the defense of our nation, and would help care for our soldiers and strengthen our nation’s defense capabilities for generations to come.
Michael Ostrolenk is an Advisor to the Pentagon Budget Campaign and a member of the Steering Committee for OpenTheGovernment.org.