Good news, everyone! The U.S. just found $125 billion in surplus funds. Can you believe it? This money can help with education, scientific research, health insurance, elder care, space exploration, repairs on the nation’s crumbling bridges, improvements to our electrical and cell communication systems. Maybe we could even afford a tax break for working Americans.
It’s time to celebrate! It’s time to get to work! It’s time to put this money to good use! It’s time to hide this bonanza away from the public! Wait, what?
Last week, The Washington Post broke a story exposing an internal Pentagon report from January 2015 that says the U.S. Department of Defense wasted $125 billion over the course of five years. The Pentagon has been spending nearly a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics, and property management, according to the Pentagon’s own analysis.
The report, completed by the Defense Business Board, starts this way: “We are spending a lot more money than we thought. We can see a clear path to saving over $125 billion in the next five years. The greatest contributors to the savings are early retirements and reducing services from contractors.”
The report even goes on to say how the Department of Defense’s productivity will increase with a reduced staff through retirement and attrition (no layoffs), updated technology and business practices, and improved communication between military departments.
But once the report came out, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking official and the person who ordered the study, put the information under classified protection. A summary PowerPoint of the report was removed from the Pentagon’s website, the Post says.
In an interview with the paper, Work said the $125 billion in savings is an impossibly optimistic estimate made by a board that fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it is to eliminate federal civil service jobs or to renegotiate defense contracts. Right now, the Pentagon employs a little over 1 million contractors, civilians, and uniformed personnel to fill back-office jobs. The workforce supports the 1.3 million troops on active duty.
Work says the Pentagon will implement some of the study’s smaller suggestions and that by 2020, the Department of Defense will save some $30 billion.
Work is working overtime to cover his tracks. The Defense Business Board is a federal advisory panel of corporate executives and consultants from the global management firm McKinsey and Company. And they seemed pretty aware of how difficult it would be to get members of Congress to give up defense contracts, which employ thousands of people, in their home districts. In a list of factors that would be critical to saving $125 billion, the board wrote, “Longstanding relationships with core business process system suppliers who are key Congressional constituents — needs of the Department must come before parochial interests.”
It’s hard to imagine just how much money $125 billion is, so I checked out the “Trade Offs” tool at National Priorities Project, a Northampton-based nonprofit that scrutinizes federal spending, to put the gazillions into real terms.
With $125 billion, for one year, the U.S. could fund one of the following:
2.2 million infrastructure jobs;
College scholarships worth $8,000 each to 15 million students;
1.4 million Head Start slots;
1.54 million public school teachers;
1.2 million veterans on VA Medical Care.
“So, $125 billion is more than the total budget of many federal agencies over the last five years,” says Lindsay Koshgarian, National Priorities Project’s research director. “In another context, last year’s fight over defunding Planned Parenthood would have affected only $528 million in federal funding — so this is more than 200 times that much.”
But instead of getting these, or other extremely valuable services, the higher ups at the Pentagon are going to keep billions of dollars they don’t need so as not to have to do battle with Congress — and keep the money.
“There is this meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” Work told the Post. “Although there is a little bit of truth in that … I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.”
Comfort and ease are poor reasons to keep wasting billions of dollars on redundant administrative services and contracts. I can understand why Congresswomen and men would be concerned about losing Department of Defense contracts in their communities because it would mean jobs lost — for a little while. The $125 billion would be spent employing other people in positions that will actually benefit the nation instead of leeching off it.
The only reason to forgo trading useless jobs for useful ones is to keep the people who are now making money, still making that money — and to keep the people who aren’t, out.
Kristin Palpini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.