“Defense Spending” can be Wasteful, Too

Here is a game that both parties play: when they attempt to persuade us angry taxpayers that there’s no waste left to cut in the Federal budget, they discuss the budget in terms of “non-defense spending.” The assumption that they’re trying to sell you on is that “defense” spending is ipso facto not wasteful. This is virtually a political silver bullet for conservatives, who tend to be the only people who complain about government spending, and who likewise tend to believe that having a strong military is one of the true legitimate functions of the Federal government.

As a consequence, over the years, an increasing proportion of wasteful spending has been stashed away in the DOD budget to protect it from political pressure. Today we have a reminder that DOD wastes money with just as much talent, skill, and verve, as the rest of the Federal government:

It might be the world’s most expensive gas station — not to mention a gross misuse of taxpayer money, according to a top government watchdog.

The Department of Defense spent $43 million to build a gas station in Afghanistan that should have cost roughly $500,000, the lead oversight team monitoring U.S. spending in Afghanistan has found. The discovery came as part of a broader investigation into allegations of criminal activity within the DOD’s premiere program to kick-start the Afghan economy.

I think, if you set aside the particular shocking nature of this one specific gas station, the very fact that we have a program to “kick-start the Afghan economy” that’s nested within the DOD ought to raise a few alarm bells. Moreover, the fact that it seems to be one of dozens of such programs and that no one can answer any questions about it should indicate that the problem is more endemic than DOD might like to admit:

At issue is spending by the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations, known as TFBSO or the Task Force, which ended in March 2015. But most alarming, according to Sopko, is the DOD’s failure to answer questions about the $800 million program and its claim the Task Force’s employees no longer work for the DOD.

“I have never in my lifetime seen the Department of Defense or any government agency clam up and claim they don’t know anything about a program,” said Sopko, a former federal prosecutor appointed by President Obama in 2012 to watch over spending in Afghanistan.

“Who’s in charge? Why won’t they talk?” he said. “We have received more allegations about this program than we have received about any other program in Afghanistan.”

As just one example, the Obama administration has begun to funnel a substantial portion of their crony capitalist green energy pork through the DOD. Under Obama, the DOD has spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying companies to develop technology that will allow military assets to run on biofuels – and that doesn’t even get into the fact that the biofuels in question cost over ten times as much as their petroleum counterparts.

More problematically, no one has a very clear idea of how much money the DOD actually spends:

Every month until she retired in 2011, she says, the day came when the Navy would start dumping numbers on the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Pentagon’s main accounting agency. Using the data they received, Woodford and her fellow DFAS accountants there set about preparing monthly reports to square the Navy’s books with the U.S. Treasury’s – a balancing-the-checkbook maneuver required of all the military services and other Pentagon agencies.

And every month, they encountered the same problem. Numbers were missing. Numbers were clearly wrong. Numbers came with no explanation of how the money had been spent or which congressional appropriation it came from. “A lot of times there were issues of numbers being inaccurate,” Woodford says. “We didn’t have the detail … for a lot of it.”

The data flooded in just two days before deadline. As the clock ticked down, Woodford says, staff were able to resolve a lot of the false entries through hurried calls and emails to Navy personnel, but many mystery numbers remained. For those, Woodford and her colleagues were told by superiors to take “unsubstantiated change actions” – in other words, enter false numbers, commonly called “plugs,” to make the Navy’s totals match the Treasury’s.

Just like every other conservative, I strongly support spending that actually improves this nation’s ability to project force throughout the world. But what we have to come to grips with is that not all (or even nearly all) the money that DOD spends actually goes toward this goal. Especially under the Obama administration, DOD has been fundamentally transformed in many ways to be even more structurally wasteful than it ever has been.

The across-the-board cuts favored by Democrats will of course not target these wasteful programs; if anything, they tend to be more resistant to axing via general cuts than actual useful military spending. But Republicans should not pretend that there’s no waste in DOD that isn’t in desperate need of trimming, just as much as any other portion of the budget.

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