Beef jerky, reality shows, beer: Coburn tells DoD to cut it all out

Friday - 11/16/2012, 5:33am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Beef jerky, a microbrewery and windmills are among the hundreds of items the Defense Department is not only spending money on, but producing each year.

And Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wants the Pentagon to cut it out.

Coburn said Thursday, DoD will spend almost $68 billion on non-military goods and services over the next 10 years. Some recent examples include a smartphone app to help military members manage their caffeine intake and the sponsorship of a workshop by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called the 100 Year Starship project, which included a session called, "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?"

Coburn released a new report, called The Department of Everything, in an attempt to shine light on what he calls wasteful spending during a time of ever-tightening budgets.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

"At the end of World War II, we had 12-million men under arms. We had 2,000 flag officers and generals. Today, we have 1,000 flag officers and generals and 1.2 million under arms. The ratio is totally out of whack," Coburn said during a press conference on Capitol Hill. "We almost now have an admiral for every ship in the Navy, not a captain, but an admiral. So what we've done is go through and look at areas where we could not necessarily save all the money but we could transfer responsibilities that were not truly the defense of the country out of the Pentagon, consolidate programs and save a significant amount of money."

Coburn identified five areas that he said had nothing to do with national security yet represent a significant chunk of the annual $600 billion-plus Pentagon budget:

  • Non-military research and development: $6 billion.

  • Education, specifically on schools on military bases: $10.7 billion.

  • Tuition assistance that mirrors a benefit from the Veterans Affairs Department: $4.5 billion.

  • Grocery stores on military bases run by the DoD: $9 billion.

  • More than 300,000 military members performing civilian jobs and numerous general officers: $37 billion.

Coburn also said the Pentagon spent $700 million on alternative energy research that was duplicative or unnecessary.

Coburn said every area across DoD must be reviewed, analyzed and decided if it is something that is core to the military's mission.

He placed the blame for many of these non-DoD related goods and services on the shoulders of Congress.

"Congress is a failure when it comes to oversight," he said. "Beneath that, we are a failure when we write legislation because we give way too much authority and judgment to the bureaucracy. The reason we do that is we don't know what we are talking about so we have to because we are not up to speed in terms of level of knowledge about what we should be when we legislate."

Conservative estimate of spending

Coburn said there also is some inertia in the programs from that lack of oversight.

He said the reason DoD does so much non-military health research is because former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) wanted a special project decades ago. But it grew and grew and now DoD spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on everything from breast cancer research to osteoporosis to prostate cancer.

Cover image of Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla) report Department of Everything

Coburn questioned why DoD is performing this type of research when the National Institutes of Health are doing not only the same thing, but doing it better.

Coburn said neither DoD nor Congress reconsidered these non-defense related programs. Instead, they just fund them time and again.

"Career politicians, fearful of cutting any program that may offend an interest group, have shown no ability to set priorities for our nation," the report stated. "As a result, our national security is harmed twice — first by military funding for non-military uses and second by the ever increasing debt to potentially hostile foreign governments that can use their influence to affect the safety and security of all Americans."

Coburn said the $68 billion figure is a conservative estimate of what DoD spends on non-military related goods and services. He added the Pentagon wouldn't necessarily save all $6.8 billion a year because some of the money would go back into mission-critical areas, but he estimated at least $4 billion of it could be salvaged.

This was the second report Coburn issued within a month regarding wasteful spending in government. In October, he issued the Wastebook 2012 highlighting $18 billion across 100 projects, which he said are frivolous.

Efficiency initiatives throughout DoD

The Pentagon defended the military's spending habits.

"The DoD budget is aligned to strategic priorities we have identified to keep America safe and maintain the strongest military in the world," said Elizabeth Robbins, a DoD spokeswoman, in an email. "Over the past several years, we have redoubled our efforts to make better use of the taxpayer's defense dollar and meet our fiscal responsibilities."

DoD, like most agencies, has required the services to become more efficient, especially around back-office functions such as technology and acquisition. For example, the Navy is trying to cut 25 percent of its technology budget over the next five years.

DoD also introduced the Better Buying Power initiative that calls for more competition, better cost analysis and better trained acquisition workers.

For Coburn, the reductions are cut and dry. But for others it's not so black and white.

Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow with the Center for New American Security, said there definitely are things DoD is spending a lot of money on that they shouldn't, but Coburn may be simplifying his analysis.

Bensahel said research and development is a good example of where Coburn's report falls short.

"It's hard to know what really is military related and what isn't," she said. "First of all, DoD and every research agency do a lot of research projects that don't pay off. That's how research works. It's not clear how you tell from the outset how you're automatically going to be limited to non-defense applications."

She said some programs may start out without any specific defense application but eventually turn out to be useful.

"I don't know how you make that determination. It's not just as easy as saying we will cut out everything that doesn't have to do with the military," Bensahel said. "You may be doing basic research in a subject to get at a military application such as how you detect things or what trails are left by a particular type of technology."

Tough budgets require new perspectives

Other areas such as running elementary schools or the number of flag officers could be debated more widely, though Bensahel said it's easy to understand why DoD spends in these areas.

She said a report like this is helpful to begin the conversation, especially with more than one-third of DoD's budget tied up in personnel that isn't on the table for cuts.

"At a time when the Defense budget is under particular scrutiny, when looking at these issues becomes very important in terms of what can you cut out of Defense spending to make way for other types of Defense spending or to reduce the DoD budget overall, these kinds of things do merit examination," Bensahel said. "If you are going to cut the Defense budget you have to look at the totality of what DoD is doing. Should the DoD be so involved in the education sector or is it better, or more appropriate these days, to rely on civilian education off of military posts? Those are valid questions to be discussing at the broadest levels, especially when you are talking about a Defense budget decrease."

Coburn said he hopes the report gets people on Capitol Hill and in DoD thinking more seriously about what and how they spend money.

He said he will use the basics of the report to write amendments to the Defense Authorization bill. The Senate is expected to take up the bill in the coming week or so.

"We'll offer a ton of amendments. We probably won't be allowed to get them heard. That's the dysfunction of Washington," Coburn said. "Not only do we not do oversight, we don't actually legislate properly on the floor in terms of having a position to have a chance to change something that would obviously benefit the country in the long run versus benefit the political process of moving a bill across the floor."

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