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Posturing Twits in the Howling Wilderness of the Pentagon’s Budget Debate

Flash: In his 13 February 2011 op-ed column, The GOP’s defense budget mystery, George Will, a self-proclaimed conservative, who by self-definition, therefore, must favor adherence to the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution, not to mention the rule of law (for example, the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990), just announced that he has discovered the logical implications of the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles!

Mr. Will ends his op-ed by opining:

“To govern is to choose, always on the basis of imperfect information. If, however, the strong language of [Congressman Randy] Forbes and [Senator Tom] Coburn is apposite, Congress cannot make adequately informed choices about the uniquely important matters that come to McKeon’s committee. This fact will fuel the fires of controversy that will rage within the ranks of Republicans as they come to terms with the fact that current defense spending cannot be defended until it is understood.”

Of course, Mr. Will says nothing about what to do about the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles that has so recently impressed itself upon his consciousness. He does refer to Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla) proposal to freeze the budget until the Pentagon can pass an audit. But, he does not say he supports Coburn’s proposal. On the contrary, he hedges his position by saying pompously if Coburn’s language is apposite (i.e., if Coburn’s language is apt for the circumstances under discussion), Congress can not make an informed decisions about the defense budget.

Duh!

Nor does Mr. Will suggest that true conservatives, who claim to believe in the Constitution, ought to support Coburn’s proposal, or any proposal aimed at bringing sanity to the Pentagon’s bookkeeping mess. In the end, Mr. Will leaves the reader with an inference that he might support Coburn’s idea, but then he might not. Will’s reference to Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), is peculiar in this regard, to say the least. Forbes, a supporter of high defense budgets, was quoted elsewhere as arguing that, because of the bookkeeping shambles, the Obama Administration could not predict how much its ‘efficiencies’ would reduce the defense budget, leaving the listener with the bizarre implication that, therefore, Congress should not cut the budget at all!

Will’s vaguely detached pontifications in the presence of such madness smack of posturing without putting himself at risk by taking a position. Of course, op-eds are — or should be — about staking out positions.

Why is George Will pumping out pusillanimous mush about a ‘defense budget mystery’?

After all, it is not as if the Pentagon’s accountability problems were unclear and disputable … The are no “ifs” about the existence of the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles. On the contrary, the existence of the Pentagon’s bookkeeping mess has been understood and acknowledged to exist for almost 30 years. Nor is the seriousness of the bookkeeping shambles a mystery — just ask Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who as a freshman senator dared to take on a popular President Reagan on this very issue. Grassley demanded that I present the two-hour Plans/Reality Mismatch briefing before a joint open hearing of the Senate Budget and Senate Armed Services Committees in early 1983. Grassley’s remarks at the hearing about the seriousness of this issue can be found here.

Or … one might ask where George Will has been for the last 20 years since the passage of the CFO Act in 1990. During that time, Pentagon flunked audit after audit, while it repeatedly pushed the deadlines for compliance with the law further into the future? The goal for compliance is now 2018, or 28 years after the passage of the CFO Act!

Or where was George Will when Stephen Friedman, chairman of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s financial transformation panel, released his report in April 2001 saying that the Pentagon’s financial management systems do not provide reliable information that “tells managers the costs of forces or activities that they manage and the relationship of funding levels to output, capability or performance of those forces or activities.” [“Transforming Department of Defense Financial Management A Strategy for Change,” April 13, 2001, Executive Summary, page i.] The undeniable message in Friedman’s carefully chosen language is that unreliable accounting information makes it impossible to link the intended consequences of past spending decisions to the needs justified by the defense budget now before Congress. This is tantamount to saying it is not possible to determine whether or not the internal activities of the Defense Department and its budget are related to the external requirements the Pentagon claims it is preparing for.* Compare the logical ramifications of Friedman’s sentence to the wishy-washy position Will takes in his last sentence — and Will is a man who always tries to impress the reader with his rigorous use of logic, and by extension, the need to act on the implications of that logic.

In fact, Senator Coburn’s proposal to freeze the budget until the Pentagon can pass a legally required audit is clearly a logical first step — if only a modest one — in the right direction. Coburn’s reasoning is simple and straight forward, and there is no need to invoke pretentious words like ‘apposite’ to obscure one’s own squeamishness. Last November, a group of working level ex-Pentagonians laid out the reasoning for a budget freeze (again) in an open letter to the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission. The letter explains quite directly why the bookkeeping shambles makes it a national security imperative to support the Coburn proposal, independent of any recommendations by the Commission over whether or how much to reduce the deficit.

To put it bluntly, the Pentagon’s audit problem is not new; it is not, as the ridiculous cliché-addicted Donald Rumsfeld would say, an ‘known unknown.’ Yet faced with reality, George Will, ever the courtier in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac, positions himself on the fence, as if he was facing something new, conditional, and hard to understand. Over the years, Will has claimed repeatedly to be a defender of the conservative faith in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, but he exhibits no opprobrium over what is clearly an assault on that wisdom by the Pentagon’s open contempt for the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution and the rule of law.

James Madison, perhaps the most influential of the Framers of the Constitution, said in a famous letter to W.T. Barry, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” At the very least, the spirit of the Madisonian ideal means the Pentagon’s bookkeeping system ought to conform to the Accountability and Appropriations clauses of the Constitution and the laws derived from those clauses, so the people’s representatives might understand what they are buying with the money they are extracting from people.

When conservative ‘opinion makers’ like George Will fudge this moral requirement (moral because every member of the federal government has taken a sacred oath to uphold and defend the Constitution), can there be any wonder at our nation careening toward a farce, or tragedy, or both?

———-

* For new readers, I described the relationship of the bookkeeping shambles to the Pentagon’s budgeting practices and the power games for extorting money out of the Congress (and by extension the taxpayer) in my 2002 statement to Congress [here] and how those games contribute to domestic politics that create a predilection for perpetual war or the perpetual threat of war [here].

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

More articles by:

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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