Tighten Pentagon’s Purse Strings Until It Passes an Audit

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan heads the military advisory panel of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Franklin C. Spinney works in the office of the secretary of Defense. The views expressed are theirs alone

If the turmoil in Florida has offered us a civics class, the central lesson is this: Respect our Constitution.

The same lesson needs to be taught to the Pentagon. For four consecutive years, the Defense Department, which accounts for half of the nation’s discretionary spending, has been unable to pass a financial audit, flouting both constitutional requirements and a 1990 act of Congress. In the wake of the Florida fiasco, will the Pentagon pledge to stop violating the Constitution?

At stake are both the rule of law and our national security. The Pentagon’s books are in such utter disarray that no one knows what America’s military actually owns or spends. We also can’t estimate the cost of new weapons or how much would be saved by cutting wasteful military programs.

The picture becomes even more horrifying when the Pentagon’s financial transactions are examined. The Defense Department’s inspector general recently identified $6.9 trillion in accounting entries, but $2.3 trillion was not supported by adequate audit trails or sufficient evidence to determine its validity.


Another $2 trillion worth of entries were not examined because of time constraints, and therefore, the inspector general was able to audit only $2.6 trillion of accounting entries in a $6.9-trillion pot.

Without sound financial data, the president, Congress and military leaders simply cannot make the kind of policy decisions and budgetary commitments that must be made to ensure our nation’s security.

Curiously, even without the foggiest notion of how defense dollars are being spent, analysts of all political stripes continue to estimate future defense budget requirements. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the Pentagon will need an extra $30 billion per year just to maintain current force levels. The presidential candidates proposed adding tens of billions over the next 10 years. The Joint Chiefs of Staff see a need for $180 billion more over the next six years. Not surprisingly, Defense Department critics argue that the military budget could be trimmed by about the same amount as the hikes proposed by advocates of greater spending.

The proposals on both sides have one thing in common: None mentions the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles.


The reality is that, given the inability of the Pentagon to account for public funds previously allotted, no one can predict the level of funding required in the future.

In effect, through its accounting obfuscations, the Pentagon has usurped Congress’ power of the purse by spending what it gets without congressional oversight.

This is no small matter. According to constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin, the construction of the appropriations and accountability clauses makes the power of the purse the foremost control on the president’s power in the entire edifice of checks and balances.

Like much of the language of the Constitution, the original intent of the framers resides in a mix of absolutely clear requirements tempered by the studied ambiguity of 18th century prose. In 1990, with the concurrence of the president, Congress removed most of the remaining ambiguity by enacting laws that require the inspector general of each federal agency or department to prepare an annual financial audit that specifically links all money spent to appropriations authorized.


This is not a particularly demanding requirement. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has now failed to account for its expenses for several years; in effect, it has declared itself the constitutional equivalent of a rogue elephant--out of control and above the law.

Here is a simple way out of this mess: With no realistic threat to our national security on the horizon for the next 15 to 20 years and with America spending 18 times as much as all the adversaries identified by the Pentagon, we should call a time out. Congress and the president should fund the Defense Department through a continuing resolution at 5% to 10% below current levels until the Pentagon passes a financial audit.

It is ironic that one of the nation’s most trusted institutions, the Pentagon, flouts the Constitution year after year with the blessing of our political leaders. The new Congress and president must find the courage to rectify this embarrassing situation. The taxpayers and soldiers at the pointy end of the spear deserve no less.