The Department of Defense has famously never passed a financial audit, with the first one coming only in 2017 following decades of avoidance of the issue. The Pentagon failed that first audit, and each one thereafter, much to the chagrin of those hoping to bring an end to the legendarily wasteful spending – and inordinately complex bookkeeping – that has long been a hallmark of military procurement. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a new way to put more pressure on the Pentagon to get its financial act together.
The Audit the Pentagon Act of 2021 would penalize any part of the Pentagon that fails its audit by forcing it to pay 1% of its budget back to the U.S. Treasury, with the funds being used to reduce the federal deficit.
The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Lee (R-UT).
“The Pentagon and the military industrial complex have been plagued by a massive amount of waste, fraud and financial mismanagement for decades. That is absolutely unacceptable,” Sanders said in a statement. “If we are serious about spending taxpayer dollars wisely and effectively, we have got to end the absurdity of the Pentagon being the only agency in the federal government that has not passed an independent audit. The time is long overdue for Congress to hold the Defense Department to the same level of accountability as the rest of the government. That is the very least we can do.”
Along with many other critics, the lawmakers believe that the lack of good accounting is a big part of the reason that spending at the Pentagon involves so much waste. “We've seen example after example of excessive and inefficient spending by the Pentagon, and every dollar squandered is a dollar not being used to support our men and women in uniform," Grassley said. "After 30 years to get ready, this bill pushes the Defense Department to finally achieve a clean annual audit – a requirement that every other federal agency is held to.”
Pentagon officials say they are trying their best to get a handle on the military’s outsized spending, which is the largest discretionary part of the federal budget, totaling $740 billion this year alone. Both the department and the audit process are extremely complex, requiring more than 20 individual examinations, and results are improving each year. But Pentagon leaders can’t say when they think they’ll finally get a clean result.
The bottom line: The senators hope to provide some inspiration to Pentagon leaders as they struggle to get a handle on hundreds of billions in spending. It’s not clear if the bill will be able to progress, but it could end up being considered as part of the next National Defense Authorization Act this fall.