Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently took to Congress to testify in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. And while certain media outlets failed to cover the confirmation (except for the heated exchange with Elizabeth Warren, go figure), Secretary Esper’s hearing raised $100 billion question for Americans truly concerned about the Defense Department’s impact on our nation’s fiscal future, especially the ongoing waste by the “Fourth Estate.”
Not to be confused with its media counterpart, the Fourth Estate is a nickname referring to operations within the DoD that are non-military related. From human resources to information technology, these administrative sectors of the Pentagon do not report to a military branch but provide support services for military agencies, civilian federal employees, and contractors employed by the military. These services, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that cited a DoD budget brief, are funded by over $100 billion in annual appropriations. Despite the exorbitant funding, however, the Fourth Estate lacks oversight, organization, and the ability to meet minimum standards.
GAO found one particularly egregious example of bureaucratic waste. Employees in one department were receiving human resource services from as many as three different entities within the DoD – along with services from their branch. This kind of waste led to Rep. Mac Thornberry, who at the time was Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to target the Fourth Estate for budget cuts.
In 2015, Chairman Thornberry and the House Armed Services Committee pursued a $10 billion cut by Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. That mandate was included in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). A 2017 GAO analysis found that the DoD did not hit this target – falling short on savings while providing inaccurate and inconsistent data. Fast forward to today and this original request has still gone unfulfilled.
In 2018, Chairman Mac Thornberry introduced language to the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act targeting the Fourth Estate once again for a reform. In an op-ed explaining his reforms submitted to Military Times, Congressman Thornberry said, “accountability for and enforcement of ‘fourth estate’ reforms is essential.” His legislation, which was successfully included in the final version of the FY19 NDAA, called for a 25% reduction in these non-military Pentagon support agencies, equivalent to $25 billion worth of bureaucratic waste. The cuts were designed to take effect after two years, with the Chief Management Officer of the DoD taking charge of implementing these reforms. It called for a plan to be submitted to Congress by March of 2020.
The DoD is now lawfully responsible for cutting around $35 billion from the “Fourth Estate,” $10 billion as mandated by the FY16 NDAA, and $25 billion as cited by last year’s NDAA. But little to no progress has been made in this regard, and by law, they only have one year left- quite obviously not enough time to accomplish these mandates.
During his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Esper mentioned that cutting waste from the Fourth Estate is a “top priority.” Despite billions in tax dollars being on the line, lawmakers declined to conduct any further questioning regarding this issue.
Congress had an opportunity to press the Defense Secretary on unfulfilled Congressional requests to save American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in bureaucratic waste. Instead, the moment passed with little to no interest. Fixing the money pit that is the “Fourth Estate” will not happen if members decline to enforce the very budget cuts they passed into law.
Unfortunately, the apathy towards this issue at Secretary Esper’s hearing was a testament to what came later, yet another suspension of the debt ceiling and a budget busting spending spree by lawmakers. It’s the same wasteful status quo in Washington, except now, even the required cuts are being ignored.