Updated: Apr 7, 2020
by Cassandra Varanka
Just as one does when trying to avoid public notice, the Pentagon officially released the results of its first-ever audit early Thursday evening on November 15, exactly one week before the Thanksgiving holiday. Buried on a back page of the Defense Department Comptroller website was the thoroughly unsurprising news: the Pentagon failed its first-ever audit. Almost simultaneously, a group of defense experts called on the United States to spend even more money on defense, arguing against efforts to advance a more fiscally “efficient” Department of Defense. Together, these two reports paired for a beautiful bit of unsurprising irony.
It is hard to overstate just how anticlimactic the news about the Pentagon audit was. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan made the point best, saying to the press that, “We never thought we were going to pass an audit, right? Everyone was betting against us that we wouldn’t even do the audit.” Not even the Pentagon was willing to act like they stood a chance of responsibly accounting for the hundreds of billions of dollars the American taxpayers give them every year. But we’re supposed to be thrilled that they did it anyway?
The fact that the Defense Department not only moved forward with but fully completed the audit is actually the most notable part of the audit announcement, not its outcome. The U.S. Congress passed a law saying that all government agencies must pass an audit back in 1990 — nearly three decades ago. It took 28 years to get the Pentagon to actually complete its legislatively-mandated audit. Deputy Secretary Shanahan was spot-on when he said that most of the world doubted that the Pentagon would ever actually audit itself. But they did, and for the first time we have the Pentagon’s receipts.
There are some interesting things we learned from this auditing exercise. While the overall audit was considered a failure, a handful of agencies within the Pentagon did pass (among them were the Defense Contract Audit Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Services Working Capital Fund, both of which would have been very embarrassing failures). Additionally, the audit did not find any massive fraud or abuse. At face value that’s good news, but it also means that there is no obvious blueprint to review expenditures and determine if there are opportunities for cuts to the massive $700 billion dollar plus budget. Instead, the audit report highlighted management challenges like “countering global terrorism” suggesting that if we could just figure out how to effectively counter terrorism we might be able to reduce expenditures. So yes, the Pentagon failed its audit. But it did not even manage to do so in a way that would allow lawmakers to make strategic decisions about funding in the future.
The audit failure came directly on the heels of the publication of the National Defense Strategy Commission’s findings and recommendations. The National Defense Strategy Commission was created by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act in order to review the United States’ Defense Strategy. Members of the commission were appointed by Members of Congress. The appointed members were defense specialists, many connected to the very contractors that make billions off of the Pentagon’s out-of-control budget. Even less shocking, the commission recommended that the United States spend significantly more on its military, as much as $1 trillion per year by 2024, and recommended cutting from so-called “entitlement programs” to make up the difference.
The month of November gave us two wickedly ironic stories on the Defense Budget: we desperately need more but we cannot account for what we have. Those who track these issues have little to be shocked about from either of these reports. So what happens now? We could very well see an equally predictable December: as attention turns to next year’s budget, the Democrats demand that in exchange for their desired increase in domestic spending and protection of the “entitlement” programs pointed out by the National Defense Strategy Commission, they agree to let the Republicans have their desired bloated defense budget, and the cycle of spending continues on.
But what if it didn’t? What if House Democrats drew the line in the sand and told the Pentagon that it can’t have both $700 billion taxpayer dollars unaccounted for AND claim to be woefully unprepared to address strategic threats to our nation? That would make for a huge surprise and an amazing holiday gift to the American people.