Congress Gives Defense Spending a Look

Will the press do the same?

The Hill is good to notice a small but potentially significant change in lawmakers’ attitudes toward Pentagon spending: a “growing number of centrist Democrats” appear willing to consider cuts to the usually sacrosanct defense budget.

That’s a good catch. It’s also a good reminder of how little press attention the massive Pentagon budget really gets.

As we noted back when President Obama released his budget, the jaw-dropping $708 billion he requested for the Defense Department—an amount so large it came as a pleasant surprise to defense contractors—didn’t get near enough attention. Nor did the president’s decision to exempt military spending from his proposed budget freeze.

Without more coverage of where all that money is going—what’s working well, what’s wasted—it’s hard for lawmakers to look for places to trim, especially when jobs back home are on the line.

And we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that this is a job the press really needs to do, because the Pentagon seems particularly bad at monitoring itself.

A couple of weeks ago the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a coalition of liberal and conservative defense thinkers brought together by Rep. Barney Frank, released its own report identifying some $960 billion in spending cuts over the next ten years. The details are interesting, and deserve more attention than they got. But this bit is downright alarming:

One area of reform with consequences for all others is financial management. Today, DoD is one of only a few federal agencies that cannot pass, nor even stand for, the test of an independent auditor. Among this handful of errant agencies, DoD is both the worst offender and the most consistent. The DoD Inspector General has found that the weaknesses in DoD’s financial system “affect the safeguarding of assets, proper use of funds, and impair the prevention and identification of fraud, waste, and abuse.” The Acting Inspector General of the United States concurs, adding that these weaknesses “adversely affect the reliability of DOD’s financial data” as well as “the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of its operations.”

What these failings mean is that DoD cannot accurately track its assets, nor cost them out. As one analyst summarizes the problem, “Because the Pentagon cannot link financial inputs (appropriations) to results, managers cannot consistently and reliably identify what their weapons, forces, and policies are now costing, will cost in the future, or even what they really cost in the past.”

Huge defense budgets. Ineffective oversight. And lawmakers so worried about needing to appear serious about cutting the deficit that some 200,000 people a week aren’t going to get their unemployment checks. But the defense budget can’t get a good going-over?

The Hill sees signs that the grim deficit picture is getting some Blue Dogs to change their mind:

Liberal Democrats for years have called for cuts to the massive defense budget to no avail. Even after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007, their few attempts at reining in defense spending have proven futile, partly because of opposition from centrist Democrats hawkish on defense issues.

Now that opposition is softening amid rising concern about the nation’s fiscal future and the fact that defense makes up more than half the country’s discretionary spending.

The story quotes Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), who says that when it comes to cutting spending, “nothing can be off the table,” and says that attitude “is increasingly becoming the dominant view of the Blue Dogs.”

The piece would be strengthened with a few more Blue Dogs who see things that way. Instead, it quotes Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who doesn’t seem ready to look at the defense budget for places to trim. (Instead, he wants to look at social programs.)

But the story provides a lot of other context that suggests that something really may be changing. Defense Secretary Robert Gates got a lot of good press last month for his plan to cut weapons systems, red tape and healthcare costs worth about $100 billion. Frank’s task force released its proposals. The chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee thinks his panel will end up with a bill that spends less than the president requested.

And in a speech this week, Steny Hoyer, the Democratic majority leader in the House, declared that Pentagon spending has to be part of any talks about reducing the deficit. As The Hill notes, “In prior years, such a floated proposal would have been shot down immediately. But it’s still airborne.”

The story says Hoyer is going to talk more about the need to look at defense spending in a Monday speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where some members of the crowd are sure to raise an eyebrow, if not an outright objection.

The Hill also makes this smart observation:

While Republicans hit Hoyer hard for saying Democrats would not produce a budget, they stopped short of criticizing his call for defense budget cuts. While some Republicans will certainly balk at cutting the Pentagon’s budget, others might be reticent because cutting government spending is a top priority of the Tea Party movement.

The headline on The Hill piece is promising:

The Liberal Dems’ battle to cut defense spending reaches a turning point

The press should see this as a turning point, too.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at