Pentagon Must Improve Accountability, Demands Coburn

On Monday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sent a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations calling for the Pentagon to get its finances in order in the face of elevated budget scrutiny. Although many politicians view defense spending as sacrosanct -- particularly on Senator Coburn's side of the aisle -- there is a growing consensus that the defense budget must be brought under control. In the letter, Senator Coburn noted the Bowles-Simpson plan's inclusion of defense savings:

"After months of study, commissioners from across the political spectrum agreed that the Department of Defense's budget must be reduced in the coming years in order to deal with our debt. The Commission called for reductions in defense acquisition and investment accounts as well as reforms to operations and maintenance, health care, and personnel policies."

Senator Coburn also called for the Pentagon to improve its financial management and prepare for an audit:

"As you know, the Pentagon is one of the few agencies in the federal government that cannot produce auditable financial statements in accordance with the law...

For decades, the mission of the Department of Defense to comply with basic financial standards has been viewed as a waste of scarce resources, even more so during a time of war. However, this is not supported by the actual experiences of Department of Defense agencies. For example, the Marine Corps is already seeing impressive returns on their meager investments in the pursuit of financial improvement and audit readiness. The Defense Information Systems Agency has also identified tens of millions in net savings by improving their financial operations.

In light of these savings and upcoming budget challenges, I ask you to aggressively pursue financial improvement and audit readiness in order to preserve the military's ability to take care of our troops today and to invest in the needed modernization of our weapon systems for the future. If done properly, this effort to improve your financial management will yield savings and prevent cuts to military personnel and programs which could occur otherwise."

Senator Coburn is right on the mark here. Every aspect of federal spending -- domestic discretionary, entitlements, and defense -- as well as our tax code will have to face serious scrutiny as we try to get out of the fiscal hole we have dug ourselves into.

As policymakers look to make serious cuts in the defense budget -- cuts which will probably need to go far beyond the Gates proposals -- it would be best if they had a full understanding of where money is being used effectively and where efficiencies can be found. Defense spending accounted for over 20 percent of overall spending last year at $689 billion. Surely, we can better track where $689 billion is spent.

As the saying goes: if you can't measure it, you can't manage it.