Rosa Brooks’ weekly column is up at Foreign Policy. She’s been writing mostly on civil-military relations but this week dives into runaway Pentagon spending. She echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, particularly her last paragraph where she asks a lot of tough questions that I’m fairly certain nobody on Capitol Hill or in the Building is asking.
Congress, being the large, slow-moving target that it is, receives a broadside as a major culprit of wasteful DoD spending. Brooks writes:
When I was a newly minted Pentagon employee, one of the things that astounded me most was how hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff. This should not have surprised me, since funding stupid stuff is one of Congress’ constitutional functions, but it surprised me nonetheless. I recall, for instance, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ so-called “heartburn letters” to congressional appropriators. Most of his complaints related not to proposed funding cuts, but to Congress’ insistence on giving DOD money for programs the military did not want or need, such as extra VH-71 helicopters or C-17 Globemaster IIIs.
My own thoughts on Congressional oversight of DoD are evolving–this is a really complicated relationship about which much more could be written–and what follows isn’t necessarily a rebuttal or a defense of Congress, but rather some food for thought.
In the 1960s, the Army began issuing new M-16 rifles to soldiers headed to Vietnam. Unfortunately, it did so with some really crappy ammunition. According to Army records, and courtesy of the inimitable C.J. Chivers, 80 percent of 1,585 soldiers surveyed in 1967 claimed a stoppage while firing. Publicly, the Army claimed that nothing was wrong and that the M-16 was best rifle available. A Congressional subcommittee investigation forced the Army into making improvements to the weapon and ammunition.
In 1985, Barry Goldwater assumed the Chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before the legislative session even began, Goldwater had decided to make defense reorganization his number one priority. The Pentagon fought reorganization tooth and nail for the next two years. Goldwater-Nichols, though not perfect, is widely regarded as one of the smarter pieces of defense legislation ever passed by Congress and it was done against strong objections from the Pentagon.
And my personal favorite was that time when George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, James Forrestal, Lauris Norstad, Clark Clifford, the Navy, and the Army TRIED TO GET RID OF MY BELOVED MARINE CORPS. Good times. Luckily, the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and later the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected their proposals to reorganize the War Department without providing the Marine Corps statutory authority.
I’m not trying to say Congress always gets oversight of the Department right, particularly when it comes to appropriations and acquisitions. Lord knows some things <;cough>; the F-35 alternate engine <;/cough>; can’t be defended. But just because the Pentagon says it doesn’t want or need something, doesn’t necessarily mean it knows what the hell it’s talking about. Sometimes, and I know this will come as a shock, large bureaucracies want what’s in the interest of… large bureaucracies.
*Thanks to Chris, Ryan, and Dan for helping me think through some of this.