It’s Always Windfalls for the Military

One of the US Congress’ items of business for the end of the year is passing the National Defense Authorization Act. This funds the US military budget, and the act always draws immense bipartisan support, even despite a few ancillary culture-war issues injected into it this year. Here are three things about this act I wish citizens and journalists were more aware of.

One, US military spending is scored on an annual basis — unlike in any other area of policy funding, where the Congressional Budget Office scores spending and revenue over a 10 year timeframe. What this means, practically for us citizens, is that when you see that the NDAA authorized a military budget of $860 billion when the Democrats were advocating for a $2 trillion infrastructure investment not so long ago, those aren’t really the numbers to compare. You should multiply the military budget by 10 to put them on the same footing: $2 trillion infrastructure investment vs. $8.6 trillion military budget, both over 10 years.

Two, there’s a constitutional reason why Congress has to re-authorize military spending every single year. The Framers, fresh off living through an experience where their own government had an army oppressing its own citizens, wanted to build a system of protection into the US Constitution to prevent their new government from being able to do the same. Traditionally, 1700s European governments did not maintain “standing armies,” instead they raised armies only when needed for defense (or attack), and sent the soldiers back to their civilian lives when the conflict was over. It was extremely unusual for the British government to be keeping soldiers active all the time. The Framers viewed a government keeping a standing army in peacetime as having only one purpose: to use force against the civilian populace, as they experienced in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. So, they built what they thought was a poison pill into the US Constitution: they forced Congress to vote every year to re-authorize the military. Surely enraged citizens would oust any Senator or Representative dumb enough to keep voting for a military in the next election? This worked for a while: there was no “US Army” until the Civil War; the country relied on individual state militias for its defense.

Three, in its entire history, the Pentagon has only ever conducted one financial audit, in 2018, which it failed. I bet when I say “they failed an audit,” you imagine that they couldn’t fully match up expenditures against incomes on all their balance sheets — you know, something down in the details. But, in fact, the problem was more that when auditors asked Pentagon departments for their incomes and expenditures, the answer they got was, “We don’t understand the question. You expected us to keep track of what and what?” The Pentagon apparently has no concept of the idea that it’s funded by US taxpayers and is supposed to be a good steward of that money. Worse, the Congressmembers and Senators who represent us are unwilling to force corrections to the US military system, because of its role propping up jobs in their states and because they fear their opponents would attack them as not sufficiently supportive of “the troops” if they don’t pour endless piles of cash into military development programs.

I worked on military programs for a portion of my career. Once, assigned a duplicative, mind-numbing analysis project that nobody could ever express any purpose for, I decided to exercise my creative abilities by coding up some labor-saving tools so that I could accomplish the purposeless work quickly and then devote more of my time to more interesting and valuable projects. However, I then got in trouble with my boss for not spending the full amount of hours I’d been assigned on the project. When I pointed out that I’d accomplished the required work, my boss told me that the most important thing for our project was to spend all the (taxpayer) money we’d been assigned that year, because otherwise we’d get less money the next year. I quit that job.

Congress could probably cut the US military budget in half without affecting troop levels or readiness at all. The current funding levels are unconscionably wasteful in peacetime. And reducing them would do more to reduce the size of government than any other ideas anyone has put forward in my lifetime.

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