A Modest Proposal for Solving Pentagon Control and Bloat: Tax Transparency

The Pentagon believes it is too complex and secret for audit laws.(Photo: tpsdave / Pixabay)

As the war on terror drags into its 16th year, President Obama recently indicated at the Warsaw NATO Summit that the US is entering new military escalations, suggesting that we better get used to perpetual war. This means that we may be paying far more than this year’s $600,000,000,000 to the Pentagon for its vastly superior arms, which still are no match for suicide vests, homemade bombs and beheadings.

By FY 2015 alone, we had given the Pentagon $597.5 billion to spend on war — more than the combined budgets of the next 11 countries, including China (with $145.8 billion) and Russia (with $65.6 billion).

A few weeks into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a CIA official’s op-ed in The New York Times vainly reminded us — and the Pentagon — that “no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded.”

Small wonder cynics like famed philosopher George Santayana could conclude war was more natural and long-lasting than peace. On the eve of the 1918 Armistice, he wrote the essay “Tipperary,” containing two heartbreaking lines: “We should have to make peace with the fact of war” and “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Lack of Audits (1996-2013) Hid $8.5 Trillion in Expenditures

If an annual audit system had existed between 1996 and 2013, it might have revealed that $8.5 trillion of our tax dollars were spent, but never appeared on Pentagon’s books.

For years, the Pentagon’s imperious response to required audits for all federal departments has been that its operations are so vast, so complex and so secret, it can’t comply. Its officials know neither presidents nor Congress would ever dare withhold allocations. The 2017 deadline has been postponed to 2018, seemingly without complaints.

In 1996 and 2009, presidents and two Congresses have signed annual audit laws specifically for the Pentagon. That neither law is enforced explains who’s really running our country.

In fairness, a handful of congressional budget hawks have pushed for audits — Senators Tom Coburn and Joe Manchin and Rep. Barbara Lee introduced audit bills in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Manchin’s latest bill, like the others, is rusting away in the armed services committees with a one percent chance of ever becoming law.

Pentagon Demands $582.7 Billion for FY 2017

Although the Pentagon has demanded $582.7 billion for the FY 2017 allocations, Congress has decided that the sum is too little and voted accordingly with$661 billion approved by the Senate and $559 billion by the House, averaging $610 billion. Obama has threatened a veto, but knows it will be overridden.

As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois once said about stratospheric sums: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Worse for us in the next four years, because no presidential candidate has dared mention Pentagon budgets or a platform plank enforcing an annual audit and cost-benefit report. Yet, we’re the ones getting stuck with those ruinous sums that are increasingly cutting into desperate domestic needs. At this rate, Social Security and Medicare soon will be on the chopping block.

Of course, many Americans are willing to pay for a strong defense, but perhaps not for starting wars abroad largely to benefit corporations, or to rule the world or for war profiteering. We learned about contractor profiteering when President Ronald Reagan’s investigating committee discovered the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seat and $435 hammer. Today, it’s the estimated $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapons capacity and the $400,000 customized F-35 pilot’s helmet from Rockwell Collins.

Somehow, cost overruns never seem to bother the Pentagon. Nor is it likely that the department will blackball bidders, or the Navy’s newest ships would never have had a $900 million overrun.

A “Modest Proposal” for Revealing the Price of Endless Wars

Now, let’s remember that we taxpayers pay for what are predicted to be endless wars around the world. True, we elect a president and members of Congress to represent our views and pocketbooks. But most of us are now fully aware that they are seldom representing us these days. Too many are representing donors in election campaigns and future lobbying careers (“revolving doors”). If we’re paying for those wars and domestic protection, we have the right to control Pentagon allocations and expenditures.

Instead of throwing up our hands as most have done at this seeming impossibility, why not consider a modest proposal to seize such control — and push for it as we do for, say, election planks and other issues foreign and domestic? Millions have — and will continue — to sign internet petitions or call congressional members and the White House. Opposition from the Pentagon and their contractors, Congress and presidents would hopefully awaken the public’s attention to how their money is being spent — at the expense of domestic needs.

Let’s push to remove Pentagon allocations from the federal budget and, instead, shift it to us as a direct supplementary “war tax” to be included in our income tax forms. We’ve been paying the Pentagon bills anyway, but most have never known exactly what their share has been for this perpetual war on terror we’re supposed to get used to. With this tax, we would know.

Several benefits would favorably affect the Pentagon, contractors, Congress and White House that they might not perceive at first. Consider the monumental savings, relief and benefits of this bookkeeping shift for the decision-makers in Washington. For one, they would no longer have to suffer lobbyists, or risk scandals for taking their “gifts,” or be blamed for poor judgment in launching wars.

Among benefits to Pentagon officials would be the end of having to put time and energy before congressional armed-service committees to testify and justify rebuilding the entire nuclear arsenal, increasing salaries, drafting women, or today’s brouhaha about ordering 2,457 of those heavily flawed and unnecessary $400 billion F-35 fighters. And an end to nagging about submitting to an annual audit.

The proposal would free up legislative aides from researching and writing Pentagon bills for congressional bosses and providing data, so that they appear knowledgeable at emergency hearings. Think, too, of the savings to the environment from the costs associated with producing reports for Congress and the administration when reports on the Pentagon’s finances would be presented in a four-page online explanatory newsletter directly to us, the taxpayers.

If we were directly paying the Defense Department’s allocation, both the president and Congress would be spared the blame and shame of consequences for Pentagon failures, such as the death toll (37) in test-flight crashes of the defective Osprey helicopter. Or boondoggles, such as the Battelle Institute-directed $80 million “Iron Man” metal protective suit for GIs already toting 60-90 pounds of combat gear.

Getting such a bill passed into law — the Friday before a recess, of course — would require only the usual creative language skills of legislative experts equal to those in major lobbying firms. Too, without the Pentagon’s colossal slice in federal tax-distribution pie charts, the proposal would drastically improve the administration’s image because the domestic allocations then would appear to be the number one spending priority.

Almost all of the administrative structure needed for collecting this war tax is already in place. The Pentagon still would calculate its line-item costs and send them over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to determine each taxpayer’s share by tax-bracket status. The IRS would then send taxpayers a separate bill, a patriotic Pentagon bumper sticker, and recruitment enclosure detailing enemy threats and post-service benefits. The IRS, as usual, would enforce collection, sending our money to the Treasury Department for distribution to the Pentagon.

Amounts due from us would be determined by apportioning the Pentagon allocations to each year’s taxpayers according to their individual tax brackets. In 2015, the number of taxpayers was 230,090,857. So, the $610.5 billion Pentagon allocation would work out to an average of $2,653.30 per taxpayer, but the actual amount paid out by individuals would be lower, depending on their tax bracket:

Tax-Bracket Supplemental

Percentage War Tax

10 265.33

20 530.66

30 795.99

40 1,061.32

50 1,326.65

60 1,591.98

70 1,857.31

80 2,122.64

90 2,387.97

Annual Audits, Cost-Benefit Analyses

The major drawback might not be outraged taxpayers in the streets, but thousands with sharp pencils and calculators threatening class action lawsuits unless the Pentagon delivered those annual cost-benefit analyses and annual audits of budgetary line items. Itemization would go far in finally forcing separation of essentials from boondoggles.

Our team of attorneys would be hard-nosed penny pinchers with expertise on military expenses. Among the tough questions they might ask of Pentagon defendants would be:

• Why are we paying for 800 foreign bases, particularly those in Africa?

• How much has been spent in the last five years to lease foreign quarters and field gratuities?

• What’s the basic cost of occupying Russia (and China) for five years?

• Was it necessary to replace three (or six) aircraft carriers?

• Was it necessary to rebuild the entire nuclear stockpile?

• Where will obsolete nuclear weapons be stored?

• What’s their storage cost for the next 100 years?

• If obsolete weapons or vehicles were sold for scrap and/or to civilians or foreign markets, did the revenue decrease the next budget request?

Questions asked about contractors might be:

• List research and development funds spent on unused goods from 1997 to 2017.

• Were Products A, M and X overpriced?

• What is the expected life span of Products F, M and Q?

• List contractors of the last five years who have had a history of poor quality goods/services, kickbacks, overruns, late deliveries.

• Were they eliminated from the bidding pools?

• How have you dealt with personnel accepting kickbacks from vendors?

• Were construction projects completed in timely fashion and of good quality?

• What are they used for now?

Our expert witnesses assuredly would be whistleblowing retirees from the Pentagon’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS). Some are still furious about being ordered to fill in fake amounts (“plugs”) to cover up waste and contractor kickbacks from overpriced products so that Pentagon numbers matched Treasury Department figures.

Even if the Pentagon were to get favorable rulings, the publicity would be devastating. If they were to lose, it would require sending us tax refunds. The major benefit of either verdict probably would be cutting losses drastically by scrupulously weighing cost-benefits of projects or programs before they start.

Naturally, this modest proposal would require the Pentagon sending us — in timely fashion — both cost-benefit reports and annual audits before Treasury would release a dime. Refusal to pay the war tax is a possibility, though IRS penalties usually work; but not if millions choose that action to end the wars.

Having the taxpayer hold the purse strings is perhaps the best and only way to keep the Pentagon on a short leash. Where war or peace is at stake, “we the people” have a right to control something that will vaporize us and destroy the planet. We could prove Santayana wrong.