In a 13 February 2011 op-ed column [also attached below], George Will, a self-proclaimed conservative, who by definition must favor adherence to the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution, not to mention the rule of law (for example, the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990), announced that he has discovered the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles! He ends his op-ed by saying … “To govern is to choose, always on the basis of imperfect information. If, however, the strong language of [Congressman Randy] Forbes and [Senator Tom] Coburn is apposite, Congress cannot make adequately informed choices about the uniquely important matters that come to McKeon’s committee. This fact will fuel the fires of controversy that will rage within the ranks of Republicans as they come to terms with the fact that current defense spending cannot be defended until it is understood.”
Of course, Mr. Will says nothing about what to do about the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles that has so recently impressed itself upon his consciousness. He does refer to Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla) proposal to freeze the budget until the Pentagon can pass an audit. But, he does not say he supports Coburn’s proposal. On the contrary, he hedges his position by saying if Coburn’s language is apposite (i.e., if it is apt in the circumstances under discussion), Congress can not make an informed decisions about the defense budget. Duh!
Nor does Mr. Will suggest that true conservatives, who claim to believe in the Constitution, ought to support Coburn’s proposal. In the end, Mr. Will leaves the reader with an inference that he might support it, but then he might not. Will’s reference to Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), is peculiar in this regard, to say the least. Forbes, a supporter of high defense budgets, was quoted elsewhere as arguing that, because of the bookkeeping shambles, the Obama Administration could not predict how much its ‘efficiencies’ would reduce the defense budget, leaving the listener with the bizarre implication that, therefore, Congress should not cut the budget at all.
Will’s vague and detached pontifical language smacks of posturing without putting himself at risk by taking a position. Of course, op-ed are — or should be — about staking out positions. Why such pusillanimous mush?
After all, it is not as if the Pentagon’s accountability issue were unclear and disputable … The are no “ifs” about the existence of the Pentagon’s bookkeeping shambles. On the contrary, it has been understood and acknowledged to exist for almost 30 years. Nor is the seriousness of the bookkeeping shambles a mystery — just ask Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who as a freshman senator dared to take on a popular President Reagan on this very issue, when he demanded that I present the two-hour Plans/Reality Mismatch briefing before a joint open hearing of the Senate Budget and Senate Armed Services Committees in early 1983 (to see Grassley’s remarks at the hearing about the seriousness of this issue, go here.)
One might ask also where George Will has been for the last 20 years since, the passage of the CFO Act in 1990. During that time, Pentagon flunked audit after audit, while it repeatedly pushed the deadlines for compliance with the law further into the future? The goal for compliance is now 2018, or 28 years after the passage of the CFO Act!
Or where was George Will when Stephen Friedman, chairman of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s financial transformation panel, released his report in April 2001 saying that the Pentagon’s financial management systems do not provide reliable information that “tells managers the costs of forces or activities that they manage and the relationship of funding levels to output, capability or performance of those forces or activities.” [“Transforming Department of Defense Financial Management A Strategy for Change,” April 13, 2001, Executive Summary, page i.] The undeniable consequence of Friedman’s carefully chosen language is that unreliable accounting information makes it impossible to link the intended consequences of past spending decisions to the needs justified by the defense budget now before Congress. This is tantamount to saying it is not possible to determine whether or not the internal activities of the Defense Department and its budget are related to the external requirements the Pentagon claims it is preparing for.* Compare the logical ramifications of Friedman’s sentence to the wishy-washy position Will takes in his last sentence — and Will is a man who always tries to impress the reader with his pompous use of logic, and by extension, the need to act on the implications of that logic.
In fact, Senator Coburn’s proposal to freeze the budget until the Pentagon can pass a legally required audit is clearly a logical first step — if only a modest one — in the right direction. Coburn’s reasoning is simple and straight forward, and there is no need to invoke pretentious words like ‘apposite’ to obscure one’s own squeamishness. Last November, a group of working level ex-Pentagonians laid out the reasoning for a budget freeze (again) in an open letter to the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission. The letter explains quite directly why the bookkeeping shambles makes it a national security imperative to support the Coburn proposal, independent of any recommendations by the Commission over whether or how much to reduce the deficit.
To put it bluntly, the Pentagon’s audit problem is not new; it is not, as the cliché-addicted Donald Rumsfeld would say, an ‘known unknown.’ Yet faced with this reality, George Will, ever the courtier in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac, positions himself on the fence, as if he was facing something new, conditional, and hard to understand. He claims to be a defender of the conservative faith in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, but he exhibits no opprobrium over what is clearly an assault on that wisdom by the Pentagon’s contempt for the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution and the rule of law.
James Madison, perhaps the most influential of the Framers of the Constitution, said in a famous letter to W.T. Barry, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” At the very least, that spirit of knowledge means the Pentagon’s bookkeeping system ought to conform to the Accountability and Appropriations clauses of the Constitution, so the people’s representatives can understand what they are using the people’s money to buy. When conservative ‘opinion makers’ like George Will fudge this requirement, can there be any wonder at our nation careening toward a farce, or tragedy, or both?
* For new readers, I described the relationship of the bookkeeping shambles to the Pentagon’s budgeting practices and the power games for extorting money out of the Congress (and by extension the taxpayer) in my 2002 statement to Congress [here] and how those games contribute to domestic politics that create a predilection for perpetual war or the perpetual threat of war [
Washington Post, February 13, 2011
Phi Beta Iota: We’ve finally realized there is no point in criticizing “the establishment,” it will not change until it is totally overthrown by young connected angry people, much as happened in Egypt in eighteen days. It will take longer in the USA, for the corruption is much much deeper, much much more pervasive, and much much more insidious. Especially insidious is the manner in which the corruption extends to the religions, labor unions, and ostensible non-profit organizations that pupport to be “independent.” They are not. George Will is not stupid–he is merely ignorant of reality and unwilling to bite the hand that feeds him regularly. And that is his epitaph.