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National Editorials & Columns

Funding the nation’s common defense is Congress’ job

Among the objectives named in the preamble of the Constitution, the Founders specified one of the primary responsibilities of governance for the newly formed republic is to provide for the nation’s common defense.  For more than two centuries, the United States of America has protected its borders, people, international commerce and national security backed up by a civilian controlled military funded by the taxpaying public.

Our system of checks and balances works to keep the military under civilian control.  The Constitution specifies the president serves as commander in chief.  The people’s branch appropriates and the executive branch spends money to provide for the Armed Services.  This dual authority works to ensure the military serves, not subverts, we the people.

Since our nation’s founding, policymakers have debated the merits of the size, scope and strategy of the nation’s military. Between the White House and Congress, presidents and lawmakers have used the strength of the U.S. military to maintain peace, protect and defend the blessings of freedom and provide for national security.

Generations of Americans owe a debt of gratitude to those who have served in the Armed Forces, putting their lives on the line and often separating from their families to serve, defend and protect.

Although the U.S. military serves a critical role in upholding the nation’s common defense, lawmakers should not issue blank checks to the Department of Defense.  In fact, my longstanding crusade to protect the taxpaying public has exposed serious financial mismanagement at the Pentagon that undermines military readiness and exposes cultural, systemic flaws that weaken this critical institution of the federal government.

Protecting the taxpaying public and providing for the nation’s common defense are not mutually exclusive.  Too many people in Washington think that throwing more money at something will solve the world’s problems.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Congress works to dial back the spending spigot that has created a $17 trillion national debt, I am working to hold the line on overspending.  As keepers of the public purse, lawmakers need to demand more accountability for each tax dollar, including defense spending. Although no one thinks the across-the-board sequester was the smartest way to hold spending to the level Congress agreed to live under, I reject the notion that there are no parts of the federal budget that can be cut and the only solution is to ditch the spending caps that have forced Uncle Sam to borrow and spend less of taxpayers’ money.

For those who ballyhoo that the sky will fall if the Pentagon’s budget is trimmed further, I would direct their attention to the apparent shenanigans of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.  What’s worse, the independent watchdog at the Pentagon may have schemed with DFAS and turned a blind eye to problems with the agency’s financial statements to snow policymakers and the public.

One of my earliest crusades against government waste started at the Pentagon.  At that time, a Pentagon maverick reported serious fiscal mismanagement and an astonishing waste of tax dollars.  Remember the $500 hammers and $7,600 coffee pots?  It’s been a few years since I drove my orange Chevette to the Pentagon from Capitol Hill to track down answers about bloated defense budgets.  Thanks to the courage and pursuit of the truth from a civil servant at the Defense Department, we succeeded in exposing fantasy financials that front-loaded the budget with massive, unaffordable programs.  At the time, the Pentagon was flushing tax money down the drain with $700 toilet seats.  His testimony at a joint congressional hearing helped lead to a freeze on the defense budget build-up at the height of the farm crisis in the mid-80s, sparing taxpayers billions of dollars.  Ever since, I’ve championed all means necessary through oversight and legislation to hold the Pentagon accountable for the money it spends to uphold the nation’s common defense.

As Abe Lincoln discovered during the Civil War, there’s no shortage of profiteers who troll federal spending for financial gain.  Or in the case of the DFAS, allegedly fudging the numbers to mislead policymakers and protect its funding stream.  It takes a tireless commitment to prevent the taxpaying public from getting fleeced. Sometimes it feels like paddling upstream,especially as the federal government has a record of using antiquated systems to track spending and prevent fraud.

Rooting out waste, fraud and abuse is hard enough even with proper auditing tools.  So if integrity at the auditing shop in the Inspector General’s office is up for grabs, policymakers would have better luck finding a needle in an Iowa haystack than getting accurate numbers to make the right spending decisions. 

If this episode is a reflection of widespread “financial delusions” the DFAS conducts throughout the Pentagon, then Congress needs to tighten, not loosen, the purse strings until the Department of Defense can rightits fiscal ship.

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