In this April 26, 2017, file photo House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In this April 26, 2017, file photo House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

Thornberry’s Pentagon-Reform Plan to Nowhere

It's pitched as a way to cut waste — but would make the misallocation of our tax dollars more likely.

This week, the House Armed Services Committee chair, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-TX, announced a plan to cut the costs of the Pentagon bureaucracy by $25 billion. On the surface, it may sound like a courageous effort to impose fiscal discipline at the Pentagon and build a more efficient military. Upon closer inspection, it’s a case of bait-and-switch: pledging to cut waste while making the misallocation of our tax dollars more likely.

For example, the Thornberry plan would eliminate the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, or OEA, an invaluable agency that helps communities adapt to reductions in Pentagon spending. The OEA has had considerable success in helping to convert shuttered military bases to civilian uses — in many instances, such conversions have ultimately created more jobs than the military use ever supported. More recently, the agency has offered grants to states and localities to plan for shifts in Pentagon procurement that could affect the economies of their areas.

Think of the OEA as one small but important institution designed to smooth the way for legitimate reductions in Pentagon spending by pushing back against the pork-barrel politics that too often keeps unnecessary bases open and unnecessary weapons in production. Eliminating the agency will enable waste writ large, on a scale larger than anything that might be saved by reducing bureaucracy alone.

The biggest flaw in the Thornberry plan is that it proposes to plow any funds saved by trimming bureaucracy straight back into the Pentagon, to boost spending on weapons procurement and basic operations. This is an extraordinary suggestion at a time when the department is slated to receive two of its biggest budgets since World War II: $700 billion this year and $716 billion in fiscal 2019. The Pentagon has so much money that, as Taxpayers for Common Sense has noted, it can’t spend it fast enough, resulting in Congressional action to allow the department to spend 25 percent of its funding in the last two months of this fiscal year, up from the usual total of 20 percent. 

And let’s not forget that the amounts agreed to by Congress for 2018 are tens of billions of dollars more than the Pentagon asked for last spring. Much of this funding has gone to “plus-up” spending on big-ticket weapons – a boon to contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin but a questionable way to spend the department’s extra funds. Take the F-35, for example. The budget President Trump signed last month upped the numbers of planes to be purchased this year from 70 to 90. This is at a time when independent analysts like the Project on Government Oversight have pointed out that the F-35 may never be ready for combat, and when Pentagon has frozen deliveries of the F-35, because, as the department’s acquisition chief Ellen Lord has acknowledged, with some understatement, that “The department . . . has perhaps not been as thoughtful as we want to be from this point forward in terms of what we consider acceptable performance.” Why rush to buy more copies of a plane that isn’t ready to carry out its mission? And why free up funds from other parts of the military’s budget to do it?

What would real budgetary reform at the Pentagon look like? First, Congress should clear the way for another round of the base-closing process known formally as BRAC, for Base Realignment and Closure. But Thornberry has been a fierce opponent of this move, and his proposal to eliminate the Office of Economic Adjustment would make it harder to close facilities in the future, even as the Defense Department acknowledges that it has nearly 20 percent more infrastructure than it needs.

In addition, someone should cast a sharp eye on the Pentagon’s more-than-600,000 private contractors, many of whom do jobs that could be done more cheaply by civilian government employees. At the moment, the Pentagon can’t even give an accurate count of how many contract personnel it employs, much less sort through which positions can best be eliminated without harming the nation’s ability to defend itself.

Finally, Congress and the Pentagon need to address the most wasteful practice of all: the failure to align expenditures on weapons and personnel with a coherent strategy. As long as procurement decisions are unduly influenced by pork barrel politics and bureaucratic imperatives rather than an honest assessment of defense needs, the Pentagon will routinely waste tens of billions of dollars even as its distorted priorities make America less safe. If Rep. Thornberry truly wants to streamline the Pentagon while making our military more effective, he should start there, not with a faux reform plan that is the policy equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. 

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