Yet again the president is using a dubious and potentially unconstitutional national emergency declaration to divert $7.2 billion from the Pentagon to go to the border wall. And while a recent letter from more than two dozen House Democrats to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper challenging this usurpation of their powers is asking the right questions, they are doing it for all the wrong reasons.
In particular, the Democrats’ letter forward all of the greatest myths of the military-industrial complex about why the Pentagon can’t spare a single dollar. This is particularly galling news when it comes the same week that Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon made $35 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) adjustments in a single year.
The truth is that money is being taken from the Pentagon because after approving a preposterous $746 billion for national defense programs, the Pentagon is the agency that can most afford to lose it — and would actually benefit from having significantly less money. As my colleague, Dan Grazier, has pointed out, the lack of accountability for endless spending at the Pentagon is akin to continuing to let a teenager have free rein over their parents’ credit card. Except in Pentagon spending, the costs are more than flat screen TVs (though those have been a problem too) — they’re paying billions for weapons systems that are increasingly more expensive and less reliable and even more for endless wars that hollow out our forces and harm readiness.
While we don’t support President Trump’s attempt to circumvent constitutional spending authorities to fund a wall that Congress would not, it is absurd to argue that we should throw more money at programs that are already wasting taxpayers dollars. For example, the Democrats’ letter agues that the money being sent to pay for the border wall would pay for a single Ford class carrier, but fails to mention it had its first deployment delayed due to the need to fix its weapon elevators. Another bright idea they offer is buying 98 of the troubled F-35s — the Defense Department’s most expensive weapon system. That program recently announced it had to completely replace the plane’s brain, and that a new one won’t be ready for years.
There are real readiness concerns that need to be addressed. ProPublica‘s investigation into recent deadly Navy accidents that killed 17 sailors showed how Navy leaders repeatedly raided training money to buy more ships. Similarly, the documentary “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” showed how leaders opted for new weapon systems, even if programs run billions over budget or never manage to work, while those working on aging equipment squabble for the scraps of the military’s largesse and desperately attempt to keep up appearances. What’s really driving shortfalls in readiness, and having deadly consequences, is the Department and services consistently prioritizing new weapon systems and what best serves defense contractors over our own men and women in uniform. This is the effect of years of war and transferring readiness funds to support shiny new weapons systems that aren’t ready for prime time. The case made for this money in the Democratic letter is just another symptom of the problem.
The Sustainable Defense Task Force, Institute for Spending Reform, People Over Pentagon, the Project On Government Oversight, and Poor People’s Campaign, among many others, have all offered proposals for cutting billions in Pentagon spending without jeopardizing readiness or our national security. Those proposals include everything from reducing bureaucratic overhead and dependence on service contracting to saving $2 billion per year closing excess bases. Instead, Congress seems to only be thinking about how it can best funnel or protect this money for contractors and their districts. Members of Congress claiming that we can’t possibly cut funds from an agency that has more money now than at the peak of the Vietnam and Korean wars are showing themselves to be terrible stewards of taxpayer dollars.
In many ways this is the unfortunate, but natural, consequence of the Pentagon, Congress, and multiple presidential administrations treating Pentagon coffers as slush funds for other priorities. That history includes egregious cases like Congress taking money for night vision goggles and upgrades to light-armored vehicles needed for Marines in the field to buy more V-22s than the Pentagon requested. And both the Congress and the Department have used as much as half of allegedly “emergency” war spending to fund programs with little or no connection to war efforts.
For those of us who are desperate for Congress to conduct real oversight and exercise meaningful accountability, this kind of letter is a day late and $200 billion short. We shouldn’t forget the Pentagon’s history of buying $435 hammers, and more recently, considering buying $10,000 toilet seat covers.
That said, there are real congressional authorities at stake, and Congress is right to push back. Last May my organization, the Project On Government Oversight, organized an amicus brief of former Republican members of Congress supporting a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the president’s declaration of a national emergency as improperly usurping the power to appropriate. While the courts are currently in the process of rendering a final decision on the constitutionality of redirecting previously appropriated funds from military construction projects, it’s clear the Constitution explicitly and exclusively grants the power to appropriate funds to Congress, not the executive branch.
The members who led this letter to the Secretary serve on the House Armed Services committee, which is responsible for the Pentagon’s annual policy bill. What this money grab demonstrates is that this bill must include real restrictions and accountability for how that money is spent. And the only way there will be meaningful accountability is to force the Pentagon to make real choices within a reasonable budget and prioritize money for what really helps strengthen our military: training, deferred maintenance, making sure they are not sent to fight illegal and endless wars, fixing the many problems uncovered by the military housing abuses, and only buying and fielding weapons systems that are safe and effective to operate.
While it’s important for Congress to continue to stand up for its oversight duties, most intrinsic of which is making sure that taxpayer money is spent only as Congress authorizes and appropriates it, parroting the defense contractors’ arguments against the transfer of the funds continues the kind of corrupt thinking that continues to make our military weaker.