Ike was right

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Senate spent its day wrangling over a $468 billion dollar defense appropriations bill. Democrats tried to slip an amendment in there calling for President Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Republicans managed to outmaneuver them on that one. But there are still plenty of pet projects in the bill from both sides of the aisle.

Despite all the political controversy, though, Congress and the Pentagon usually work pretty well together economically. Commentator and Comptroller General of the United States David Walker says today reminds him of an earlier administration: Dwight Eisenhower and what’s called the iron triangle. Eisenhower’s exact phrase was the military industrial complex.

DAVID WALKER: Ike was right about the Iron Triangle. There is a powerful, historic alliance between the Pentagon, the Congress and the Defense industry to promote defense activities and spending.

We have the greatest military on earth. But the truth is, because of a symbiotic triangle, where the key players benefit from buying new weapon and information systems, the Defense Department wastes billions of dollars every year.

Some of this is because the government doesn’t hold the Defense Department fully accountable.

Some of it is due to poor Pentagon planning and ineffective oversight of self-promoting contractors. Some of it is due to members of Congress who want to bring home the bacon.

Believe it or not, the Defense Department spends close to half a trillion dollars a year but can’t properly account for or withstand an audit of its assets and expenditures.

It’s time for the Defense Department to reconcile its long list of wants with the resources that it’s likely to get for at least the next 10 years.

Candidly, given projected budget deficits, there’s no way DOD will be able to fund what’s currently in the pipeline and on the drawing board.

It’s time to separate the Pentagon’s many wants from true 21st Century needs. The Congress also should stop requiring the Pentagon to buy additional weapon systems that it never asked for and we can’t afford.

The Defense Department also has to hold contractors’ feet to the fire and make them accountable for delivering what they promise, on time and within budget.

A recent GAO report noted that the Defense Department paid billions of dollars in incentive and award fees to contractors who failed to meet this basic test.

Yes, we’re engaged in a “war on terrorism.” And that’s one reason why we should also declare a war on waste.

RYSSDAL: David Walker is the head of the Government Accountability Office. His formal title is Comptroller General of the United States.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.