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Coburn Calls for Pentagon Audit

The President and the Defense Secretary want to stop wasteful military weapon programs, but thus far they have not reduced overall military spending. Tom Coburn and John McCain tried to offset Afghanistan war spending today (they were unsuccessful), but not with military spending already budgeted but other programs they deem wasteful. People talk about the costs associated with war, but they have shown no willingness to actually lower the appropriations.

But Coburn, a member of the bipartisan budget deficit commission, actually did move in that direction yesterday with his call for an audit of the Pentagon to get a clearer picture of their spending.

In a detailed, wonkish and occasionally fascinating 10-page letter sent to commission Chairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles on Wednesday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okl.) laid out a host of areas where the Pentagon’s fat could be trimmed.

“The single most important step,” however, he concluded, “is to better understand how the Pentagon spends its money.”

Without an accurate grasp at the start of a spending program as to its most likely cost, schedule, and performance, how can decision makers understand the future consequences of their actions? Today, an ethic continues to predominate in the Pentagon that consistently paints an inaccurate picture – one that is biased in the same, unrealistic and ultimately unaffordable direction. The errors are not random: actual costs always turn out to be much higher than, sometimes even multiples of, early estimates. The reason is simple; the Pentagon doesn’t know how it spends its money. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn’t even know if the money is spent. This incomprehensible condition has been documented in hundreds of reports over three decades from both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department’s own Inspector General (DOD IG).

If there’s at least some Republican support for a top-to-bottom review of the DoD, Democrats ought to jump at it, though I’m not sanguine that they will. People have a recognition of the history of Pentagon spending, the $800 hammers and all that. There’s no question that the people have a right to know if money is being mismanaged and funneled to defense contractors in an irresponsible way.

Yet this nibble around the edges does miss the point, in a way. You can and should monitor spending at the Pentagon to ensure prudent and responsible activities. But to truly get military spending to a legitimate level, America must change their policy of global policemen, spending as much on the military as the rest of the word combined. That would require a change in thinking that sadly doesn’t exist, not even among the likes of Tom Coburn.

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David Dayen

David Dayen