Questions avoided by HASC

By Daniel DePetris

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a hearing on the “State of the Military,” inviting the vice chiefs of four of the five services to give testimony on the capabilities and funding the chiefs themselves believe necessary to improve their branches’ readiness, modernization, and training. The hearing covered an immensely important topic, particularly at a time when the new administration is looking to reform the way the federal government spends money.

While committee hearings in general provide the witnesses with time to lobby for their priorities, they are also designed for members of Congress on both sides of the Capitol dome to ask the pointed, direct, tough, and uncomfortable questions that would ordinarily be glossed over in the day-to-day beehive of Washington. Unfortunately, the recent HASC hearing itself didn’t follow in that that tradition. The Armed Services Committee failed to ask any difficult questions at all.

The other side of the defense spending debate —why the Pentagon should be given a cash infusion of tens of billions when the auditors in the building can’t track the funds already appropriated by Congress —was glaringly absent. Indeed, there is something disconcerting with the reality critical questions were glossed over during the hearing:

1. Do you support a complete audit of the Pentagon?: The Department of Defense has had a luxury that other federal departments and agencies haven’t had; being given a seven-year hiatus since 2010 from producing a clean audit to the Inspector General. Despite concerns among many lawmakers that the Pentagon doesn’t have the resources that they need to defend U.S. national security interests around the world, the department’s $600-plus billion budget is above the average going back to the Cold War (adjusted for inflation). The base budget has increased from $287 billion in 2001 to more than $600 billion today — a 109% increase. Add the additional $59 billion in the overseas contingency operations account, and the increase is even higher.

That’s a lot of money to monitor, and yet the Pentagon is doing a poor job of accounting for it. When the Inspector General has authorized an audit or a special commission has been asked to look for savings in the building, the results have been eye-opening to the civilian and military officials who work in the department. To take the most recent example: a commission found the Pentagon could save $125 billion over 5 years just by addressing its administrative overhead. Armed Services Committee members should have inquired the vice chiefs to explain why Congress should authorize tens of billions of dollars in additional money before their civilian bosses find a way to clean up their act.

2. Is it smart for the U.S. military to be doing so much? The U.S. military is the greatest, most professional, most dedicated, and most technologically advanced joint force on the entire planet. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia look to the United States to defend them reassure them during times of war and peace. Throughout the past 15 years, U.S. troops have been ordered to perform more functions in more places around the world, at a pace that is as quick as we’ve ever seen. Soldiers are not only expected to fight, but also to act as advisers on the front-lines, fill the role of military trainers in order to increase the capability of America’s allies, funnel intelligence to partner nations, and act as diplomats in Iraq and social workers in Iraq and Afghanistan — building schools, hospitals, medical clinics, handing out soccer balls, keeping sectarian factions from killing one another, and protecting roads so Afghan civilians can travel on them without getting abducted, robbed, and killed by insurgents and tribal militias. It’s a big reason why the United States composes 37% of the world’s total defense allocations.  It may also clue us in as to why 42% of Americans surveyed in a recent Charles Koch Institute/Center for the National Interest poll would much rather see their tax dollars allocated towards addressing the debt rather than boosting the military’s budget (12%).

There wasn’t any hesitation among members on the committee during the hearing about a re-think of the U.S. military’s mission priorities.

Defense budgets should fund missions the U.S. Congress and the president ask the military to carry out. Regrettably, we all too often resemble passengers on a airplane that is riding on auto-pilot. Instead of merely accepting that our current defense strategy is sound, members of Congress should re-assess and evaluate whether American men and women in uniform should wear multiple hats on the same time, doing everything, everywhere, as it is today.

For years, lawmakers have chosen to avoid playing the skeptic, effectively handing the Pentagon hundreds of billions of dollars on an annual basis without delving into the most critical subject of them all: Why are these tasks central to U.S. vital national security interest?

3. Why can’t we close facilities that the Pentagon doesn’t need?: You have to give the military brass credit: During a time of budget caps, they understand the need to make due with what they have and help themselves by finding savings to re-invest. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the civilian secretaries of the services have begged the Congress for years to approve another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. In the words of the Pentagon’s own officials, “the Department of Defense must stop wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure. We must right-size our infrastructure, capture the savings, and devote these savings to readiness, modernization, and other more pressing national security requirement.”

Congress, however, hasn’t been able to agree on another round of base closures. Members don’t want to close facilities that would result in a short-term net loss of jobs in their districts. The political reality of worrying about an election cycle every two years doesn’t exactly help representatives in the House to shake up the status-quo (though there are courageous lawmakers who are exceptions to the rule). The necessity of BRAC received a couple of minutes in a hearing that lasted over two-and-a-half hours — not the kind of coverage that should be devoted to such a highly important defense reform topic.

Thankfully, it’s only February. Plenty of opportunities exist in the year ahead for the Armed Services Committees to probe defense officials on precisely these kinds of subjects. The sooner they do, the better off our military — and the American taxpayer — will be.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on February 15, 2017. Read more HERE