WASHINGTON ― When President Donald Trump released a budget last week with a 10 percent Pentagon increase over current budget caps and massive cuts to the social safety net, a common reaction among congressional Republicans was this: Why didn’t Trump ask for even more defense spending?
“There was no plus-up,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told HuffPost. “It’s a 3 percent increase over the Obama budget. That doesn’t jibe with what the president said, so, frankly, I’m confused.”
So automatic ― so reflexive ― is the support for more defense spending among Republicans that they don’t seem to care that the Pentagon has never completed an audit. Or, if they care, they don’t care enough to actually make the Defense Department account for the more than $600 billion a year it already receives before they hand over even more money.
Like many Republicans, Hunter supports auditing the Pentagon. But he wouldn’t support fencing off any of the new money for the Defense Department until it completes that audit. And until Congress introduces consequences for the Pentagon’s failure to complete an audit, it’s likely that lawmakers will find themselves in the same familiar position year after year: in favor of an audit but unable to get their hands on one.
Over the past two weeks, HuffPost interviewed more than two dozen House Republicans about military spending and the Pentagon’s inability to complete an audit. Almost all of them supported breaking the budget caps that Congress set for defense in 2011 ― while simultaneously advocating large cuts to domestic programs, citing a $20 trillion national debt.
But there was scant support for delaying budget increases until the Pentagon completes an audit, with some members suggesting they would maybe sign on to such a proposal and many more outright opposing the idea.
“Congress, the Pentagon, and a thriving defense contractor industry have all tied how much money the United States spends to how safe its citizens are.”
The United States already spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined. In 2015, the country spent $596 billion on defense. The next closest nation, China, spent $215 billion, with Saudi Arabia ($87 billion) and Russia ($66 billion) following behind. Congress, the Pentagon, and a thriving defense contractor industry have all tied how much money the United States spends to how safe its citizens are.
But what if money spent and military capabilities aren’t necessarily bound together? If you’re really concerned about our safety, wouldn’t you want to make sure that our defense dollars are really going to defense? And how do Republicans really know the Pentagon needs more money?
“If you sat through the classified briefing that I just held with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you wouldn’t ask that question,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) told HuffPost.
Granger is the chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee in charge of defense spending ― perhaps the most sought-after subcommittee position in Congress ― and although she supports an audit and said there are places in the defense budget “where we overspend,” she doesn’t support withholding any money until the Pentagon completes one. In fact, her general belief is that Congress should give the Defense Department as much as it can.
“I’d go for the highest amount we can achieve, because it’s still not gonna be enough,” she said.
That isn’t just the position of the person doling out the Pentagon’s dollars; it’s the position of most Republicans in Congress.
“We cannot wait to fix our planes and ships until the audit is done, the budget is balanced, and the moon and the stars all align,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told HuffPost. “We need ships that sail, planes that fly, today.”
Again, Thornberry supports an audit, but he doesn’t support fencing off any additional money until the Pentagon completes its accounting.
“You gotta walk and chew gum,” Thornberry said. “You gotta make the department more efficient. You gotta improve their acquisition. And at the same time, you gotta give the people who are risking their lives the training, the equipment, the best this country can provide.”
Republicans seem to believe the military is drastically underfunded. And even if they don’t have official documentation of that, they’re certain the Pentagon needs more money.
“Just talk to any general over there, and they’ll tell you what they need,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former Armed Services Committee member who gave up his position on the panel to become Natural Resources Committee chairman.
But if you doubt that generals are the most disinterested party when it comes to whether the U.S. needs more defense spending, there are always the lawmakers who oversee the projects that directly benefit their districts.
The open secret on Capitol Hill is that the members whose constituents most rely on defense spending often find themselves on the House Armed Services Committee or the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In one of the last remaining vestiges of congressional logrolling, members support a slate of other defense projects to ensure that their particular program is approved.
When HuffPost talked to Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, he made it clear that he supports more defense spending, but that “it’s not just the increase, it’s where would the increases be.”
And by that, Wittman ― who represents parts of coastal Virginia where many jobs rely on shipbuilding ― made it clear he wants the Pentagon to take care of his district.
“For Navy, for shipbuilding, I want to make sure we’re doing the right things there, getting those things taken care of,” he said.
Still, like almost every Republican we talked to, Wittman supported an audit. He just isn’t prepared to hold back any additional spending until the Pentagon completes that audit, even if there’s good evidence that the Pentagon isn’t spending as wisely as it could.
“Just talk to any general over there, and they’ll tell you what they need.”
Republicans aren’t entirely to blame for these problems. It takes the cooperation of Democrats for a massive government agency like the Pentagon to never complete an audit. And perhaps part of the reason Democrats have gone along with increasing the defense budget with little accountability is that, up until just recently, Republicans have matched every dollar of defense spending over the budget caps with a dollar for other domestic programs.
While Democrats also thought the Pentagon should undergo an audit, they weren’t exactly advocating for defense cuts.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, thought focusing on the Pentagon’s inability to perform an audit was “an awkward question to ask.”
Instead, he thought the more pressing issue was the GOP’s unwillingness to raise taxes to pay for the defense increases lawmakers want.
“Slashing every other aspect of the budget to plus-up defense shows misplaced priorities about what is important for a strong country,” Smith said. “That if our infrastructure is crumbling, if we stop investing in research, if we gut education, if we take money away from poor people at a time of growing wealth disparity, that we will have a country that is worse off because of it.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken proponents of the social safety net in Congress, called the GOP budget “cruel and rotten.”
“We need to redefine what we mean by ‘national security,’” McGovern said. “It needs to encompass more than just the number of bombs we have. It needs to include things like whether people have enough to eat, and whether or not people have adequate housing, and whether people have jobs. I mean, those things are important to our national security. Those are the things that people lose sleep at night worrying about.”
But if Republicans have tied increases in defense spending to increases in those other domestic programs, Democrats may have an actual interest in keeping defense spending high. And a Defense Department audit may undermine that effort.
“One of the reasons we are where we are is for about 20 years, no one really cared.”
In January 2015, an internal Pentagon study found $125 billion in administrative waste that could be eliminated over five years. Defense officials promptly buried the report to avoid the cuts ― cuts that would not have resulted in layoffs or troop reductions, but would have restricted the use of expensive contractors and streamlined information technology.
DefenseNews wrote a story on the report almost immediately, but it wasn’t until nearly a year later that the study got any major attention, after The Washington Post reported that Pentagon officials had attempted to bury it.
Most of the handful of Republicans who seemed uneasy about the Pentagon budget cited the Post story as evidence that maybe the Defense Department could spend its money a little better.
Even among those conservatives generally uneasy about any spending, however, most weren’t rushing to draft an amendment that would force the Pentagon to complete an audit by a certain date or else suffer some sort of cut. Instead, when you ask conservatives what they want to do about the Pentagon’s lack of auditing, many suggest more discussion.
“We’ll talk about it, have some hearings,” said former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Current Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) did say that not only did the Pentagon need to be audited, but that “we need to cut back on their staffing by as many as 100,000.”
“125 billion dollars, eventually, year after year, that adds up to real money,” Meadows joked, with a wink.
But when you press conservatives on what they’re prepared to do to ensure the Pentagon completes an audit, they resort to vague platitudes about cutting debt and talking points about the need for an audit. (Meadows, who was entering a meeting with the Freedom Caucus, said the group would talk about the issue that very night.)
No one seems all that interested in offering an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would require an audit and also have some teeth by, say, subjecting the Pentagon to the spending caps Congress set for defense in 2011 if it does not complete a full accounting.
After HuffPost asked whether he would support such a proposal, conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) did say he was going to introduce such an amendment, “just for you.”
Excusing those few Republican voices in Congress who believe we need to “cut it all” ― as Massie has urged Congress to do for every part of government ― Republicans and Democrats seem perfectly content rubber-stamping even more defense dollars, which is exactly how the Pentagon found itself in this decades-long age of unaccountability in the first place.
When HuffPost asked acting Pentagon comptroller John Roth about the Defense Department’s auditing problems, Roth said an audit had only become a priority in the last five or six years. “One of the reasons we are where we are is for about 20 years, no one really cared,” Roth said last week. “So that’s why we didn’t move the ball.”
The Pentagon is closer to an audit than ever before, Roth added. Under current law, the Defense Department is supposed to have an audit ready by September 30, 2017. Officials already acknowledge they’ll blow past that deadline.
“It’s going to take more than a year to get there,” Roth said. “But we have to start.”
Officials note that different accounting procedures and software across the massive Defense Department make it difficult to perfectly track every dollar. How bad is the problem? In July 2016, an accounting service for the Army could not find documentation for $6.5 trillion worth of transactions over the years.
That’s roughly the same amount of money Trump suggested Congress approve for the military over the next 10 years.
If lawmakers get their way, it’ll be much more than that.
David Wood contributed to this report.