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EDITORIAL: Defense spending shouldn’t get a free pass

Prior to 2018, the Department of Defense did all it could to avoid a congressional audit. After the results of the first-ever probe were released, the reason for the dodging became clear: The Pentagon received a failing grade.

Its 2019 audit isn’t much better.

As Reason notes, 1,200 auditors examined hundreds of thousands of items at more than 600 locations in 2018, making 2,410 separate findings and recommendations as to how the Defense Department could cut wasteful military spending.

While auditors participating in this year’s review gave Pentagon officials credit for fixing 500 of the issues found in 2018, this year’s audit uncovered 1,300 new problems with the Defense Department’s bookkeeping and budgeting efforts.

Among the major items found this year, Reason notes, were 25 “material weaknesses” within the department, including the F-35 fighter program, which was rife with managerial and record-keeping failures. In one Naval logistics center alone, The New York Times reports, there was “$81 million worth of active material not tracked in the inventory system” — as Reason points out, that’s a figure which is equal to the budget of a small city.

The push for audits of the Defense Department dates back to 1990, when Congress passed the Chief Financiers Officers Act. It mandated that all federal agencies and departments develop reliable accounting systems and submit to annual reviews of their spending and procedures. As CNN reports, the Defense Department pushed back for decades, arguing that the Pentagon was too large for a traditional evaluation. Recently, an investigation by The Nation discovered that Defense Department leadership and accountants have been deliberately misleading Congress about the Pentagon’s spending habits in order to drive budget increases.

Reason correctly observes that Congress and the White House are ultimately responsible for holding the Pentagon responsible for military spending that “has lapped the rest of the world several times over.” But such oversight has been sorely lacking. While the 2018 audit led President Donald Trump to tweet in December that the military’s $716 billion budget was “crazy,” it wasn’t enough to keep him from signing off on a spending blueprint that boosted the figure to $750 million — $17 million more than the department requested.

The United States needs a strong military and an effective military. Protecting the country is a legitimate function of the federal government. But Republicans can’t call out progressives for advocating ineffective or wasteful spending on federal public assistance programs while turning a blind eye to it when it comes to defense. As the two recent audits of the Pentagon clearly demonstrate, defense outlays must be included in any effort to scrutinize the bloated federal budget for inefficiencies and potential savings.

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