When the typical American family or business faces tough economic times, they tend to do two things. First, they take a close look at their spending. Second, they make hard decisions and set priorities.
The American people have such a low opinion of Congress because we often refuse to go through these steps. Instead of making hard decisions, we simply borrow more money and force the next generation to pay the bill. Nowhere is this bad habit more obvious than with Congress' oversight of defense spending. Congress passed a law 22 years ago -- the Chief Financial Officer Act of 1990 -- requiring the Department of Defense to pass an audit. In the 22 years since, Congress has never bothered to force DoD to comply with this law.
Fortunately, that is about to change. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and I recently introduced the Audit the Pentagon Act (S. 3487), which creates new incentives and enforcement mechanisms to force the Pentagon to pass an audit. Joining as us original co-sponsors were Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Scott Brown R-Mass., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Auditing the Pentagon is critically important not just because it is the law but also because our ignorance of how we spend defense dollars undermines our national security. When the Pentagon can't tell Congress -- or itself -- how it is spending money, high-priority defense programs face cuts along with low-priority programs, the exact situation in which we find ourselves today under sequestration. In short, this bill helps the Pentagon to help itself. For instance, the United States Marine Corps did a study in which the corps found that "for each $1 spent on financial improvement, an estimated $2.77 in value was created for the warfighter." A thorough financial audit, done correctly, will free up existing resources for national security.
DoD's inability to pass an audit has potentially wasted billions and undermined our readiness and morale. For example, as Sen. Manchin has noted, while DoD is considering laying off service members, the Pentagon overspent $8 billion -- almost half of NASA's budget -- on information technology programs that are failing in part because DoD's books are such a mess. This would be enough money for more than 15,000 active-duty troops.
Thankfully, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seems to agree with our goals. He has said "Auditable [financial] statements are needed to facilitate decision-making, to comply with the law, and to reassure the public that we are good stewards of their funds."
By "decision-making" Panetta means enabling Congress and DoD to assess and meet threats to our national security -- Congress' highest obligation under the Constitution.
Both parties have been complicit in letting DoD off the hook when it comes to producing an audit, and this bipartisan bill is a good first step on the road back to fiscal sanity and sobriety. For many Republicans, defense spending has been our Medicare. We have treated defense spending as irrationally sacrosanct, and have been resistant to embrace the very reforms that would strengthen our national defense.
The greater problem is members on both sides of the aisle who have used our national defense as a jobs program. Weapons systems have been spread out to numerous congressional districts to protect career politicians, not the American people.
Forcing DoD to pass an audit is the kind of common-sense reform the American people expect us to embrace. As Sen. Johnson said, "As a business owner for over 30 years, I know the value and importance of a comprehensive audit of an organization's finances. A clear picture of how dollars are spent enables you to prioritize critical missions and eliminate waste."
A DoD audit won't solve these problems overnight. But in Washington, big changes tend to start with small and specific reforms. A long-needed spotlight, shining on our vast military-industrial complex, will go a long way toward ensuring members of Congress are directing money to protect the country, not their careers.
Tom Coburn, a medical doctor, is a Republican U.S. senator from Oklahoma.