In March of this year, the inspector general at the Department of Defense (DOD) issued a report detailing $419 million in “improper” Pentagon travel payments over the last fiscal year.
Surely you remember that revealing exposé of Pentagon misfeasance. No?
That’s understandable. It’s more likely that you, like most Americans, missed that report entirely. It never picked up much traction beyond Beltway news outlets. After all, $419 million is a drop in the bucket of a $600 billion defense budget, and stories of fiscal mismanagement at the Pentagon have been routine for years.
But to me, this is an important story that demonstrates more than the problems of an inefficient bureaucracy. It also represents a monumental challenge to those who oppose any weakening of our defense posture.
That challenge: How do we credibly make the case to the American people that we need to protect our defense investments when the Pentagon squanders billions of taxpayer dollars every single year?
Anyone watching the debate over defense spending in Washington understands that we are losing that battle. The debate has deteriorated into an exercise in bean counting, focusing only on how much the defense budget should or should not be cut. The indiscriminate “meat ax” sequestration cuts that began in March are just one manifestation of this dysfunctional approach.
What we should be doing instead is determining the strategic needs of our nation and the world in a post-9/11, post-Iraq/Afghanistan, austerity-minded environment, and talking about smarter defense investment. That conversation should center on two questions:
How is the Pentagon actually spending defense dollars now?
What needs to change in defense investment to better confront emerging threats in the years to come, given the realities imposed by a $16.7 trillion national debt?
As both a defense hawk and a deficit hawk — the two are not mutually exclusive — I’ve wrestled with both of these questions. The first step must be getting a clear picture of how our defense dollars are spent. That means we need a full audit of the Pentagon, an idea with bipartisan support that remarkably has never happened.