Opinion: Columnists

Conservatives should stop defending Pentagon waste and fraud

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How can some policymakers claim to be fiscal conservatives when they won’t allow small spending cuts to the defense budget to go through?

We've seen that the “sky is falling” predictions about sequestration haven't materialize. Yet lawmakers in both houses of Congress are still seeking to at least partially undo the spending reductions in the Budget Control Act of 2011, despite evidence the Pentagon is wasting taxpayer dollars on overly expensive -- and arguably unnecessary -- projects.

A recent amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act by Republican Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., attempts to mitigate sequestration’s impact on the Pentagon by stretching the reductions out over the next eight years.

According to Congressional Quarterly, their amendment "would raise the cap on defense spending in fiscal 2014 from $498 billion to $524 billion and lower the annual increase in defense spending between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2021 from 2.5 percent to 1 percent, significantly below expected gross domestic product growth during the same period.”

Considering the inability of current policymakers to impose spending restraint on future congresses, trading actual cuts today for unlikely slower growth in spending tomorrow would be best described as a “dessert today, spinach tomorrow” plan.

Besides, for all the complaints about how the defense caps and sequester cuts are hurting our ability to defend the nation, there is a substantial and well-documented amount of evidence that there is a lot of waste and abuse in the Department of Defense.

As Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Commonsense told me recently, “The Pentagon budget is riddled with projects and programs that underperform and end up costing taxpayers dearly. You don't have to look any further than the F-35, the largest acquisition project, to find cost overruns and delays.”

Indeed, the F-35, a nuclear-capable fighter jet built by defense contractor Lockheed Martin, was undertaken in 2001 and to this day still isn’t fully operational.

Writing for AlterNet in March 2013, William Boardman sums it up: “Now, more than a decade overdue and more than 100-percent over budget, the plane is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its useful life, of which about $400 billion has already been spent.”

Also, a February report for the Secretary of Defense by the director of operational test and evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, explained in detail how the F-35 can't fly at night or in clouds or near lightning. That's right. For now, the Pentagon can only use its pricey toy in warm sunny weather.

Even if the plane was functioning properly, it would still be a waste of our money. As Jonathan Bydlak of the Coalition for Reduced Spending said:

The jets were created to face Soviet fighters but are impotent in the face of 21st-century warfare. Even if everything goes perfectly in the future (doubtful after years of design flaws and healthcare.gov-reminiscent dysfunction), the F-35 is years away from meeting minimal operational standards.

Why is that? The incentives in government are rarely geared toward decisions that address real problem with well-suited solutions at reasonable costs.

In addition, many spending decisions are driven by special interests and their needs. In the case of the F-35, Ellis noted, “Lockheed Martin has spread around the work and the cash to grease the political wheels and get lawmakers addicted to this junk.”

Unfortunately, there is a very long list of other wasteful spending in the Pentagon's acquisition system. And the problems are elsewhere too, such as the terrible bookkeeping practices -- the Defense Department still can't pass an audit of its books -- and fraud.

But the Pentagon isn't the only one to blame. Michi Iljazi of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance notes that Congress shares a large part of the blame for continuing to fund expensive projects that even the Pentagon doesn't want.

This, sadly, is just a sample of the problems that have been going on for years at the expense of taxpayers and at the expense of a better defense.

The worst part of all: While there is a lot of money wasted on weapons and employees that the Pentagon doesn’t need or shouldn’t be paying for, other areas are underfunded.

But allowing the defense budget to grow without constraint isn't the solution to this problem. Maintaining the budget caps and sequester levels will force the Pentagon and Congress to make adjustments, identify some priorities, shunt others, and cut ineffective and useless spending.

VERONIQUE DE RUGY, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a senior research fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
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