When it comes to government shutdowns, it’s all about money and politics.
We get that. We also get that this is the time of year when people start thinking seriously about budgets. For example, this brief period between Christmas and a new year is when folks begin worrying about how much they spent on gifts, and how to manage the family budget in the months ahead.
Maybe the family budgeteers could ask the Department of Defense for a bridge loan to pay off Christmas-related credit card bills. Or maybe President Trump could dun the Pentagon for the $5 billion in border wall money. The pentagon seems to have plenty of cash to spread around.
About 18 months ago, then-Defense Secretary and former Gen. Jim Mattis passed along some encouraging news about putting an end to wasteful Pentagon spending. He said, in part, he expected “leaders at all levels in the department to exercise the utmost degree of stewardship over every penny” and that “only by instilling budget discipline, by establishing a culture of cost awareness, and by holding ourselves accountable, can we earn the trust and confidence of the Congress and the American people that we are the best possible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Strong words from the guy who, at the time, was the Pentagon’s overseer. But as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley pointed out in a recent guest commentary in the New York Times, the Defense Department has apparently found it difficult to break old habits.
Grassley, a fiscal-conservative Republican, has been personally watchdogging Pentagon spending for the better part of three decades, and in all that time, defense spending sprees have gone essentially unchecked.
Many of you may recall the military’s $436 hammers from the 1980s, and $999 pliers in the 1990s. Then, in this decade, there were special coffee cups at $1,280 a pop. The latest, according to Grassley’s commentary, is perhaps the most outrageous — the Pentagon paying $14,000 apiece for 3-D-printed toilet seats.
This is more than just endless material for late-night TV show hosts. As Grassley points out, that kind of spending reveals a fundamental money-handling problem of the nation’s most tax-dollar-devouring government department, with a 2019 budget of more than $700 billion.
Or, as Sen. Grassley wrote: “If it had its financial house in order, overpriced parts and contracts might have been detected before ever being approved. Effective internal controls to catch and deter fraud, waste, abuse and theft serve as a firewall that would help prevent misuses of taxpayer dollars.” Amen to that.
In 1990, President Bush signed into law the Chief Financial Officers Act, which requires every federal agency to prepare a financial statement for each budget cycle. Since that law was passed, the only agency consistently unable to comply has been the Defense Department, because, as Grassley puts it, “of (the Pentagon’s) broken accounting systems.”
We have been faithful supporters of the U.S. military, and especially of those who have served in uniform. The Central Coast has a strong military presence, and many veterans retire here. The military tradition is here to stay.
The nation needs a strong defense capability, perhaps now more than in years past. But let’s get real — it’s hard to condone or rationalize spending $14,000 for a toilet seat.
President Trump has named Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan to replace Gen. Mattis. Shanahan is a former Boeing executive whose oversight included corporate spending, and he has spent the past year and a half looking into Pentagon spending. The Pentagon obviously needs that business perspective.