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It Takes a Village to Get Control of the Pentagon: How Democrats and Republicans Must Walk a Narrow Path to True Reform
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

It Takes a Village to Get Control of the Pentagon: How Democrats and Republicans Must Walk a Narrow Path to True Reform

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

Try to guess which Republican lawmaker said this recently:

Both parties have been complicit in letting DoD [Department of Defense] off the hook when it comes to producing an audit and this bipartisan bill is a good first step on the road back to fiscal sanity and sobriety. For many Republicans, defense spending has been our Medicare. We have treated defense spending as irrationally sacrosanct and have been resistant to embrace the very reforms that would strengthen our national defense.

The greater problem is members on both sides of the aisle who have used our national defense as a jobs program. Weapons systems have been spread out to numerous congressional districts to protect career politicians, not the American people.

Was it from one of the few moderates in the Republican Partly like departing Sen. Richard Lugar, who had nothing to lose?

Now try to guess which Republican said this yesterday:

Conservatives need to remember that, just as spending money on something called education doesn’t mean people are educated and spending money on welfare doesn’t mean it adds to the general welfare calling something national defense doesn’t mean it is. It may not be. It may undermine national defense if it’s a waste of resources, if it’s a misallocation of resources …

Some people argue that defense spending creates jobs. It doesn’t it. It moves it around.

These statements, that should be welcome to Democrats who are trying to get control of a defense budget that has doubled since September 11, 2001, were from two of their biggest nemeses. The first statement was said by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) as he introduced a bill to put more tools and pressure on the DoD to pass a fiscal audit. The second statement was said by Grover Norquist, of the no-taxes pledge that has bound the Republican Party’s ability to deal with our pressing fiscal problems. According to AOL Defense, Norquist’s statements were not taken well by the Aerospace Industries Association and the members of Congress who defend their push for no defense cuts in the upcoming sequestration fight.

Solutions - Making Government Work

Coburn is pushing the DoD, with his new legislation, to finally be able to pass a financial audit, something that has been required since the Congress passed a law in the 1990s to require all federal government departments to pass a financial audit that was based on private sector principles. Coburn goes on to say why he thinks that now he has to put more pressure on the DoD to finally do it:

The American people have such a low opinion of Congress because we often refuse to go through these steps. Instead of making hard decisions, we simply borrow more money and force the next generation to pay the bill. Nowhere is this bad habit more obvious than with Congress’ oversight of defense spending. Congress passed a law 22 years ago – the Chief Financial Officer Act of 1990 – requiring the Department of Defense to pass an audit. In the 22 years since, Congress has never bothered to force DoD to comply with this law.

The Obama administration wants the DoD to pass this audit by 2014 and has also put extra money and efforts in the DoD to try, finally, to make its goal.

O.K., by now you are thinking that you can’t trust any type of effort or statements by Coburn and/or Norquist and this is probably just election year hype before the fiscal cliff that is looming. The in-the-weeds military procurement geek types (I am a member of that group!) are saying that this financial audit goal could be meaningless, and the DoD accounting and management problems need to be fixed at the contract transactional level. I will discuss this near the end of this column and you can read my concerns about using private financial audits to monitor the Pentagon in two of my past columns, here and here.

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But now I want to talk about the reality of making some real changes in the DoD auditing and the budget, and what could work for people like me who have investigated the DoD for over thirty years and see a possible slight opening.

Whether Coburn’s legislation is the correct one to force the DoD into reality or not, we will not be able to reform the DoD unless the members of Congress who really want to change things box up their other political differences to walk this narrow and unpopular road together. I worked with similar people and members of Congress from both parties before and we accomplished great DoD reforms in the 1980s and we may have the chance to do it again.

When I was the director of the Project on Military Procurement (now known as the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), where I still serve on the board of directors) in the 1980s, I exposed many items of fraud and waste, and there were stirrings by some members in the Congress to do something to reform the DoD and its rampaging Reagan budgets. I took my nonprofit, nonpartisan rules seriously (“Oh, Dina, you are so silly,” I was told by some of my progressive funders) and worked with others in the fledging military reform movement, to truly put together nonpartisan reforms for the DoD.

I did find that many members of Congress who called themselves military reformers and who joined the then new Military Reform Caucus in the Congress didn’t really want to do anything and just wanted to brag about it in their constituent newsletters. However, there were some that were serious like Southern Sen. David Pryor (D-Alaska), who worked with me and some more moderate Republican members of Congress to pass a law for an independent operational testing office in the DoD.

But the most interesting team that emerged from these efforts was then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and newly elected Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). They bounded together to introduce many true reform bills, Boxer in the House and Grassley in the Senate, and they got a lot of attention from the media. Who could not watch the very liberal, diminutive Boxer, originally from New York City, stand with the tall, young, fundamental Christian, Iowa pig farmer Grassley together in a press conference announcing a bill to freeze the defense budget and to fundamentally change the way we price and buy weapons? The media loved them and the leaders in the Pentagon were beside themselves because these unlikely allies, who didn’t fit the formula, were both committing defense spending heresy with their DoD defenders in both parties. Grassley was taking the biggest risk because he was one of the young Republicans that were swept in with the Reagan election. He was taken to the woodshed several times by then-DoD Secretary Caspar Weinberger in front of President Reagan, but he told them that the new Republicans were there to sweep the welfare queens out of the government and he was working to sweep the welfare queens out of the Pentagon.

These two actually seemed to like each other and liked working together. They did not talk about their other gaping policy differences. I use to joke with their staffs that we could spice up their joint meetings by talking about human reproduction, ironically just as explosive an issue today. But the Grassley/Boxer team passed some truly fundamental reforms that stunned the DoD, and they were able to freeze the defense budget for one year near the midterm elections of the Reagan presidency.

Grassley, who, along with Boxer, truly worked to learn about how much a weapon should cost rather than did cost, lobbied his fellow conservatives, including even the very conservative Sen. Jesse Helms. Boxer embarrassed her hypocritical, pork-loving, Democratic allies by wearing an exorbitantly expensive DoD lug nut, dipped in gold paint, in a chain around her neck.

This very delicate and very narrow coalition worked for awhile to start to change the Pentagon even though we had many in both political parties against us and a determined group of defense companies, flush with cash, that worked to undo much of what we tried to change. But we did have some long-lasting victories, and the public, who always were ready to support the troops, never forgot that they were being had by the Pentagon procurement process when they saw $600 toilet seats and $7,600 coffee brewers (thanks, Lockheed).

When I talk to the general public about my work, they still bring up the overpriced spare parts and understand that the pricing of these parts also explains the massive overruns that we have today on the notorious F-35. What the people I talk to cannot understand is why the members of both parties of Congress say that they support the troops, but allow this fraud and abuse to continue.

The Boxer/Grassley team faded when Bill Clinton got elected and the Pentagon was suddenly the Democratic Pentagon. Ironically, the Clinton/Gore streamlining government initiative, which worked very well in other areas of the government, put the generals in charge of streamlining the Pentagon. They streamlined the system by crushing the reforms and unfunding them and greatly reducing those pesky DoD auditors and investigators who inhibited the free flow of money. If you want to know more about it, POGO has a very thorough report from that era.

Grassley was disappointed that Boxer, who got elected to the Senate, pulled back from their joint work, but I am happy to see that they have gingerly gotten back into doing bills together on caps for government contractors’ salaries.

I don’t know if Norquist could possibly be an ally on this, but if he sincerely would be, it could really shake up the system. But I do know that Coburn, with some exceptions, is really trying to get the Republicans to get serious about finding out where the DoD money is going before thinking about voting for more and more appropriations that now go down the DoD accounting black hole. When my book on war contractors came out in 2007, Coburn and others held a hearing on the problems and asked me to testify. He let me know that he really wanted to do something about it but, I knew at the time, he was working on a politically impossible task with the Bush administration and members of Congress concerned about their reputations and any criticism during two wars. But I remember doing my final briefing with one of his young women staffers in her office where she was preparing another hearing on abortion and her office was festooned with blow up pictures of fetuses.

I ignored the artwork because Coburn and I weren’t working on that subject and also remembered that Coburn was one of Obama’s closest buddies in the Senate at that time and they both wanted to reform the DoD. See this very interesting 2009 video clip by Coburn on how he was still interacting with Obama even after he became president and how he didn’t feel that he could work with President George W. Bush.

Based on my past hand-to-hand combat with the DoD over the past 30 years, I really do believe that we have to have a dedicated bipartisan group of mavericks in Congress willing to ignore their parties and work for true reform. You have to be very careful that this group doesn’t pass true reform, declare a victory and move on to less scary issues. Is passing the financial audit really going to help find the Pentagon money that is flushing around the building with no accountability? It may only give us a peek over the fence, and we won’t get the true reform until we get down to the contract transactional level.

The clean financial audit push, however, could be a rally point to start getting both parties to see that they have to overcome the enormous moneyed influence around all thing defense and narrowly work together to at least find the money at the deep levels in the DoD. It will have to be done after the election, but our debt problems may just force sincere people of good will to put aside foreign policy, abortion, marriage, and other fiscal purity tests to once again serve the public and those troops that they champion and start the process.

Danielle Brian, who succeeded me as the executive director of POGO and who was my assistant through many of the previous fights on DoD reform, told me why she is also trying to promote another Grassley/Boxer-type coalition to get at the Pentagon maladies:

This is one of those complex situations where the politically feasible clashes with reality. Although financial audits are not going to help us determine where fraud and waste will happen, they would begin to instill some sense of responsibility in an otherwise “girls gone wild” environment. What we really need are contract audits that can delve into the arcane world of cost and pricing data – but since we are so far from it, right now I am excited to make sure that there are receipts for the Pentagon’s expenditures. This is a long haul problem and this is step one.

In the course of investigating for this column, I have gathered some very interesting new information and new interviews on the best way to get into the defense procurement weeds, but that column will come out after the election and when we can find some serious politicians to consider it. Meanwhile, I will try to figure out why Norquist and the libertarians at the Cato Institute seem to be getting serious about this and see if they would be willing to walk that narrow path. I have worked with both of them before and chances are that they won’t, but I am a skeptical but eternal optimist. You have to be to work on DoD reform. Trust, but verify. I will get back to you on what I find.

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