The DoD Can’t Manage Its Money, So Sure—Let’s Just Throw Money at It

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Does anyone else see this picture and think of M. Bison from the “Street Fighter” series? No? Just me? Sorry, these are the things I think about. (Photo Credit: Kevin Dietsch/UPI)

You may have heard about President Trump’s plan to increase military spending in his outline for next fiscal year’s budget. According to a February 27 report by Andrew Taylor and Julie Pace for the Associated Press, the 2018 fiscal year budget proposal would increase defense spending at the expense of programs like the EPA and foreign aid programs. Programs like Medicare and Social Security are not included in the proposed cuts, though knowing of the plans of Paul Ryan and other prominent Republican lawmakers to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without a credible replacement, privatize Medicare, turn Medicaid into block grants, and defund Planned Parenthood, this might yet be coming, just from a different angle. Alex Lockie, an associate news editor and military/defense blogger at Business Insider, in conjunction with reporting by Reuters, helps flesh out the details with a report from that same day. Some $54 billion would be earmarked for the Department of Defense, and indeed, matching cuts would indeed be proposed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. On the side of the proposed funding to be slashed, these cuts shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When you nominate Scott Pruitt, a man who sued the EPA over 10 times as attorney general of Oklahoma, to head that department, and Rex Tillerson, a man with close ties to Russia, no foreign diplomacy experience, and whose dedication to curbing climate change was nil as the CEO of Exxon-freaking-Mobil, to be Secretary of State, you get the sense Donald Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the authority of these divisions of the Cabinet.

Before we get to the idea of whether or not the Department of Defense is overfunded relative to other programs—a valid and worthy question, I might add—let me begin by providing two fairly recent anecdotes concerning why the mere notion of how the DoD accounts for and spends it money may be a problem right off the bat. Back in 2015, this tidbit of news made the rounds on national and international news, but soon got buried in the avalanche of other stories inherently created by the global, multimodal 24-hour news cycle: the United States spent $43 million on building and operating Afghanistan’s first compressed gas station and helping develop the natural gas market in Afghanistan. OK—that sounds pretty expensive for a gas station, but is it really? Maybe there’s things about natural gas or working in Afghanistan that we don’t understand.

Nope—it turns it was really f**king expensive for a gas station. According to SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, that’s 140 times as much as it should have cost. 140 times! Any number of harsh language might have been used by John Sopko, the special inspector general, and—lo and behold he did—troubling, ill-conceived, gratuitous, extreme, and outrageous were all adjectives that came directly from the man himself. There was “no indication” that a study was done prior to construction to assess the feasibility or viability of the project, or what kind of difficulties might be faced in trying to complete this endeavor. Sopko could safely attribute this lack of care to sheer stupidity, and even hinted it could be related to corruption or fraud, but—get this—the DoD couldn’t cooperate with enough information to even make that determination. Per SIGAR, the Department of Defense initially responded to a request for more information with the idea it lacked the requisite experience to comment following the closure of the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFSBO). Apparently, someone forgot to save the data, and/or everyone after him or her is a complete f**king idiot. John Sopko wouldn’t go as far as to claim “obstruction” on the part of the DoD, but noted the unreasonableness of its official response, as the task force had only shut down a few months prior. On this issue, the Department of Defense was not accountable, and what’s more, it didn’t care to go to any lengths to even pretend like it was. It becomes all the worse when you consider we, the taxpayers, are the ones on the hook for catastrophic blunders such as this.

Did you enjoy that story? No? Too bad—here’s another bag of dicks to wrap your mind around. (First, wrap your mind around the wrapping of your mind around a bag of dicks in the abstract. I’ll wait.) In 2016, the Pentagon’s inspector general discovered that for the 2015 fiscal year, the Department of Defense had reported $6.5 trillion in accounting adjustments. Once again, it sounds bad, but is it? Yes, it is. When your department’s entire budget is just over $600 billion, yes, it f**king is. In defense of the Department of Defense, the magnitude of these errors is compounded by the notion that improper recordings were likely made the first time, and based on the double-entry nature of accounting, multiple accounts would stand to be affected. Still, when you’re off by multiple trillions of dollars, and when the inspector general finds that you made several unsupported adjustments, that records were mysteriously missing, that financial statements are inaccurate, and that much went documented and that there are insufficient data for an audit trail, your department is pretty much just plain wrong.

As Dave Lindorff in a piece for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) explains, the Pentagon has a long history of noncompliance with federally-mandated standards for accounting and auditability. Yet it doesn’t seem to feel the weight of any formal censure by the appropriate authorities, nor did it receive nearly the amount of media attention the super-expensive Afghanistan gas station did—and even that news story received limited play. Per Lindorff, while two articles appeared on Reuters related to the scandal, at the time of the publication of his article—September 2 of last year—both the New York Times and the Washington Post had yet to cover this story. Sounds bad, right? Like apparently everything else in this post, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. The DoD inspector general’s report was dated July 26, 2016. In other words, they had over a month to investigate and report on this, or even to respond to Dave Lindorff’s requests for a response. But they didn’t. Trillions of dollars in errors, and barely a peep from the mainstream media.

Which brings us to where we are today with the Trump administration and the prospective 2018 budget. The enacted FY 2016 budget, per the Defense.gov website, was $521.7 billion. Barack Obama, in his final defense budget proposal, put forth a proposal for a $582.7 billion FY 2017 budget, citing changes and threats in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, including China throwing its weight around in the Pacific, the continued fight to bring down ISIS, Iran and North Korea, you know, still being Iran and North Korea, and Russian aggression. President Trump, for FY 2018, has proposed a defense budget of $610 billion, which he has claimed is about a 10% increase and, like, the biggest in history. Whether we’re talking about his Inauguration crowds, or his electoral victory, or even his hands or likely his, ahem, presidential staff, we should gather that the size is overstated. According to an NBC News report penned by Phil McCausland, the White House’s calculation of a $54 billion increase is relative to the budget cap which Obama’s proposed FY 2017 budget already exceeded by about $35 billion. So, Trump’s proposed increase for FY 2018 is actually fairly modest by comparison: only about 3.1% more. Donald Trump is trying to sound like the strongman he is, and quite possibly take attention away from all the Russian drama that surrounds his administration and his own finances with the help of some patriotic bombast. With each new revelation (e.g. Jeff Sessions apparently lying under oath about speaking with a Russian diplomat before Trump was elected), this proves difficult, if not impossible, but if anyone can make you believe in the impossible, it’s a man who had no business winning a presidential race.

The Afghani money pit and the multi-trillion dollar oopsy happened before Donald Trump even was sworn in. Coupling these Obama-era SNAFUs with the notion Trump’s proposed defense budget increase is overstated and thereby more modest, why bother coming at the current President about it? First of all, I don’t even know that I need much of a reason to come at Pres. Trump under the premise of it being just for general principles, but let’s talk Trump’s campaign promises, which already are somewhat infamous in Democratic circles and likely have even independents and some Republicans confused or upset. As is oft cited, Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp,” and part of realization of that platform, one might presume, would involve eliminating government waste. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, agrees with this sentiment. As de Rugy notes, Trump, through various executive orders, has already signed orders that require federal agencies to establish regulation watchdogs and cut two regulations for every new one enacted. However, curbing government waste involves more than just cutting regulations, and de Rugy insists the President instead should focus on improper payments by government agencies, suggesting he begin with the Medicare fee-for-service program, which makes $137 billion in improper payments per year, and to expand the profile and authority of the Recovery Audit Contractor program, which exists for the very purpose of uncovering fraud, and which Democrats and Republicans alike have acted to undermine in deference to their special interests.

This would be a great place for Donald Trump to dig in and help distinguish himself from his predecessor. However, as we understand too well only a month and change into his presidency, Trump doesn’t seem to mind too much playing fast and loose with other people’s money. Every time he takes a trip to his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach estate, it costs taxpayers $3 million. Reportedly, it costs the city of New York $1 million a day to protect Trump and his family. Eric Trump even cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 for a trip to Uruguay on behalf of the Trump Organization to pay for Secret Service members and embassy staff—not even for matters of true diplomacy, but to enlarge the profits of the business from which Donald Trump enriches himself. These are galling enough, and when we consider President Trump’s proposed increase for the Department of Defense as a subset of his administration’s adversarial approach to certain non-defense programs, his hawkish tone takes on a more sinister aspect, as with his administration’s increased focus on deportation, which, by the numbers, isn’t wildly out of line with Obama’s record, but because it vastly expands the powers of ICE agents and because undocumented immigrants without a history of violent crime are apparently being specifically targeted for removal (Google “Daniela Vargas” and prepare to be disheartened), seems comparatively that much worse.

We could go on about Donald Trump’s war on immigrants, much as we could or maybe even should go on about Jeff Sessions, Russia, and the tangled web prominent Washington figures have woven with respect to Vladimir Putin and his country, but let me make my point about Trump’s separate war against programs that are reviled by his base. As noted earlier, Trump wants to slash funding for the EPA and has lined his Cabinet with climate change deniers, or at least those who evidently have no problem rolling back environmental regulations at the expense of flora and fauna (see also newly-confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision to bring back the use of lead ammunition in national parks and refuges). Along these lines, the President wants to cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s leading climate change research department, by 17%, roughly a sixth of its current budget. Reportedly, he also wants to decrease funding to the already-beleaguered Internal Revenue Service, a move which not only is geared primarily to benefitting other rich assholes like himself, but is patently self-defeating. A central point of the IRS—the Internal Revenue Service—by its namesake, is to generate revenue. If it can’t properly fund and staff its intended functions such as conducting audits or going after tax shelters, that’s needed money that the United States can’t access. Especially if Trump and congressional Republicans want to lower taxes and yet still somehow expand defense spending and address our crumbling infrastructure. If you keep spending more than you take in as a nation, eventually, you’re going to have a problem.

Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” as President, but by now, it’s painfully obvious he’s only intent on feeding its alligators, and then after feeding those alligators, apparently killing them off by de-funding all the environmental organizations that help protect their numbers. If Trump really wanted to separate himself from Barack Obama and help the little guy, he could start by curbing waste at the Department of Defense, which I see as the poster child for government inefficiency, rather than boasting about vastly increasing its funding, but let him only try to keep up appearances as being a commanding Commander-in-Chief, much as he tried to maintain his image as someone who didn’t support the Iraq War like Hillary Clinton did—even though he totally f**king did. In other words, Trump can’t have it both ways. He can’t be a champion of the people and of his rich, white conservative base at the same time. Donald Trump wants to augment the Department of Defense, but simply put, there’s no defense for him in this regard.

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