WASHINGTON -- Although many Republicans are still arguing that the Defense Department should be exempt from the belt-tightening the rest of the country is facing, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) pressed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Monday to get its financial activities in order.
In June, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen argued that America's national debt is also its biggest national-security threat. Starting from that premise, Coburn pointed out that the Pentagon is one of the least-accountable federal agencies, unable to even produce auditable financial statements that are required by law. From his letter (emphasis added):
I will continue to push for a budget-freeze of all base budget non-military personnel accounts at the Defense Department until it complies with the law regarding auditable financial statements.
For decades, the mission of the Department of Defense to comply with basic financial standards has been viewed as a waste of scarce resources, even more so during a time of war. However, this is not supported by the actual experiences of Department of Defense agencies. As you know, the Marine Corps is already seeing impressive returns on their meager investments in the pursuit of financial improvement and audit readiness. The Defense Information Systems Agency has also identified tens of millions in net savings by improving their financial operations.
In light of these savings and the upcoming budget challenges,I ask you to aggressively pursue financial improvement and audit readiness in order to preserve the military's ability to take care of our troops today and to invest in the needed modernization of our weapon systems for the future. If done properly, this effort to improve your financial management will yield savings and prevent cuts to military personnel and programs which could occur otherwise.
Coburn has been an outspoken advocate of cuts to defense spending. "It's not hard to cut the defense budget and keep our defense exactly where it is," the senator said in November. "That's how much waste is over there. Nothing is sacrosanct, it can't be. As a matter of fact, the way the Defense Department is run now, we're actually getting less bang for the buck. If we trim it down, we'll get more bang for the buck."
In July, as a leading Republican on President Barack Obama's deficit commission, Coburn endorsed a full audit of the Pentagon.
The issue of whether to cut Pentagon spending -- and by how much -- is increasingly dividing Republicans. At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) made clear that he will oppose any Obama administration plans to chop the Defense Department's budget, while others -- including many Tea Party-backed freshmen -- have said that the Pentagon should not be immune from the pain.
Last week, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), like Coburn, sharply criticized the Pentagon for failing to comply with the law requiring auditable financial statements from 2007 through last year.
"If the Department of Defense does not know where our defense dollars are going, how then are they qualified to talk about efficiencies?" Forbes said in a statement. "Furthermore, if the Department of Defense does not even have mechanisms in place to perform the audits, how are they able to comply with the law? Finally, if all agencies are required to perform regular audits, how is the Department of Defense able to skirt this compliance? If we want to get serious about efficiencies, we need to first make it clear that the Department of Defense is not above the law, and, second, demand to know where our defense dollars are going."
In a recent interview with CNN, Gen. Colin Powell, who served as secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also said that he believed the Defense Department's budget should be on the table for cuts.
"As we draw down from Iraq and as over the next several years as we draw down from Afghanistan, I see no reason why the military shouldn't be looked at," he said. "When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was chairman and Mr. Cheney was secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent. And we reduced the force by 500,000 active-duty soldiers, so it can be done. Now, how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen, but I don't think the defense budget can be made, you know, sacrosanct and it can't be touched."