Why the Pentagon Budget Is Out of Control
Policy + Politics

Why the Pentagon Budget Is Out of Control


Americans are ready to cut defense spending — if only Washington will let us.

A recent University of Maryland survey found that a majority of U.S. voters are ready to slash the Pentagon budget, which is currently about $600 billion, and gobbles up a massive 54 percent of the annual federal budget's discretionary spending, which is around 16 percent of total spending. (By some measures, counting other military-related spending — like the Department of Homeland Security — outside the Department of Defense (DoD) budget proper, the total annual defense expenditure is more like $1 trillion.)

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The good news is defense cuts are cuts we can well afford to make. As it is, the American military is wildly more powerful and better-funded than any other fighting force in the world (by a lot).

The bad news is we don't really know what to cut and what to keep, because the Pentagon's unaudited finances are in a state of impressive disarray. As conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson has asked, "Does the Pentagon spend its money wisely? Nobody knows — especially not the Pentagon. It has a long and inglorious history of book-cooking and accounting that alternates between the incompetent and the criminal."

The specifics vary (remember when we were shocked by $640 toilet seats?), but the end result is consistent: The DoD is notorious for reckless spending, shady slush funds, and a complete disinterest in transparency. Billions and billions go missing here and there, and that's evidently business as usual.

Congress isn't much help, as it is arguably even more notorious for nixing the military's occasional efforts to tighten its own belt. Right now, for example, our representatives are making the Pentagon maintain bases it doesn't need and buy ships it doesn't want.

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On the campaign trail, too, there's little promise of progress. As president, both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz can be expected to hike military expenditures. Bernie Sanders might try to cut DoD waste, but as a self-proclaimed socialist potentially facing a bicameral Republican majority, he seems unlikely to get very far. As for Donald Trump, well, what he'd do is anyone's guess. Though he sometimes sounds a welcome note of restraint, he also supports lifting caps on defense spending. In the meantime, even President Obama, who is by many accounts "gutting" the military, has asked Congress to send the Pentagon a few extra billion in the next budget. (May I be gutted the same way. And may I never recover!)]

Compounding this evidence of need for a full Pentagon audit is the significant contribution of the last decade and a half of war spending to the $19 trillion national debt.

In 2011, the cost of American intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had already hit $1 trillion, but that was just the down payment. Factoring in long-term costs, including veterans' medical expenses, the total price jumped to a staggering $5 trillion, a cool $16,000 for each and every American. Just two years later, in 2013, similar calculations updated those numbers to $2 trillion spent and up to $6 trillion committed — and that's when we all still thought ISIS was just some ancient Egyptian goddess.

With Pentagon officials speaking of the war in Afghanistan as a "generational thing" and anticipating a lengthy re-escalation of the wars in Iraq and Libya, those totals can only go up. Between planned expenditures on this scale and the Pentagon's history of waste, an audit ought to be an easy sell to hawks and deficit hawks alike: Growing the budget of the single biggest federal bureaucracy without assessing its current spending habits makes us poorer — as well as less safe.

It may be true that avid Pentagon expansionists like Cruz are on the right track, but sans a full audit, endorsing such plans is risky at best. Without a comprehensive assessment of what the military is doing with the money it already has, any proposal to expand defense spending is destined to be a shot in the dark, grounded more in what sounds good than any concrete connection to real national security needs.

To quote Williamson again, "[G]iving our soldiers the best weapons and equipment is the right thing to do…But that doesn't mean that everything the military does needs doing, or that the money it spends on doing what actually does need doing is well spent." Differentiating between those categories is exactly what an audit would facilitate.

Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to find politicians who will agree to such a commonsense approach, as spending cuts of any sort run directly counter to standard practice in Washington — a city where a slightly slower spending hike is all too often passed off as a triumph of fiscal responsibility. Yet the obstinate push toward ever bigger military expenditures has got to go. Americans are driving toward a lean, accountable approach to defense spending, and it's time our politicians caught up with us. If they're ready to get on board, a full audit is the reasonable place to start.

This article originally appeared on The Week. Read more from The Week:

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