WHAT OTHERS SAY: Ending 'don't ask, don't tell' spending at the Pentagon

Saturday, August 11, 2012 | 6:14 p.m. CDT

On most issues, it would be troubling to see Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill's name appear on the same piece of Senate legislation as those of tea party favorites Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Exceptions prove the rule. The Audit the Pentagon Act introduced last week is a very good idea.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., rounded up two Democrats — Ms. McCaskill and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — and six Republicans as co-sponsors. That 91 other names aren't on the bill is a testimony to the power of what a Republican of bygone days, President Dwight Eisenhower, called the "military-industrial complex."

Twenty-three of 24 federal departments have passed an audit, as required by Congress in 1990. Twenty-one came up clean. Two others had exceptions, but the books were rated as qualified. The Department of Defense is a no-show.

The Defense Department has insisted through the years that the size and complexity of Pentagon operations make it difficult to pass a standard audit. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told Congress that policies and procedures are now in place that should make it possible to pass an audit by 2014, three years earlier than a previous estimate.

Inasmuch as the Pentagon spends one in every five federal tax dollars, and because some Republicans in Congress — and presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — say that the Pentagon can't possibly afford the across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to begin in January, wouldn't it be a good idea to first find out where all the money has been going?

At a hearing of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support last month, Ms. McCaskill said, "We continue to hear reports that soldiers in the field have received the wrong paychecks, that the department cannot account for expenditures of billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that DOD cannot reliably determine the number of contractors it employs. ... We simply have to do better."

Mr. Coburn went further in announcing the bill's introduction: "By failing to pass an audit, the Pentagon has undermined our national security. This bill ends the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell' budgeting within the Pentagon that says, 'Don't ask us how we're spending the money because we can't tell you.'"

Counting "overseas contingency operations" — wars and sundry other military interventions — the Pentagon now spends roughly twice as much as it did in 2001. After the 10-year, $450 billion in 'sequestration" cuts — scheduled for January because of Congress' failure last year to reach a deficit-cutting deal — the Pentagon still will have a base budget next year of $472 billion.

That's about the same as it had in 2007, hardly the "doomsday" scenario that Mr. Panetta painted.

Like the rest of America, the Pentagon — with 2.1 million full-time uniformed and civilian workers and their families to cover — is being racked by out-of-control health care costs. There are contract costs, both for weapons and services, that nobody really has a handle on.

Before deciding that a budget is untouchable, the nation must find out where its money has been going. Passing the Audit the Pentagon Act will be difficult — there are a lot of powerful people very happy with opacity. Auditing the defense budget will be difficult. But the nation's true security depends on it.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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