If you grew up in a suburban neighborhood, then you probably remember garage sale season; a few weeks of the year when the homeowner’s association afforded everyone in the development the opportunity to trade their trash—because let’s face it, most patrons were from a couple doors down.
But if you remember garage sale season, you also remember the dreaded collection process. It was the moment your parents came to you with a trash bag and the instructions, “fill it with whatever you no longer need.” It didn’t matter that the bottom of your toy box hadn’t been explored in months, or that your collection of CD-ROMs littered your desk unused, your items were sacred and nobody could appreciate that. So, you procrastinated and told your parents you were working on it, hoping the garage sale would come and go with your toys living to see another day.
Most of us grow out of this phase; we are able to identify and dispose of the excessive and unnecessary. But leadership at the Department of Defense (DoD) seems to have missed the memo, and it’s costing taxpayers billions of dollars. According to the Government Accountability Office, the DoD’s budget constitutes about 15% of the national spending each fiscal year. And while Congress has historically failed to show restraint in the face of an ever growing national debt – the Overseas Contingency Operations budget being one example – they are making an attempt to have a garage sale. Lawmakers want DoD to clear out some of the toy chest and reduce spending by cutting the headquarters branch. The DoD, however, is pushing back.
DoD’s business operations are run by the headquarters wing; everything from contract negotiations, to supply chain management, to acquisitions, are overseen by this sector. But according to DoD, the department “is in the midst of significant management reorganization and reform, intended to address long-standing weaknesses in its business operations.”
In an effort to track the most critical improvements necessary to maintain a stable and fiscally responsible government, GAO maintains a high-risk list. There are 35 areas of focus on the list and they highlight aspects of certain agencies that fail to meet quality standards, most of the time resulting in the waste of significant taxpayer dollars. The DoD is a problem child, featured seven different times, all involving the headquarters branch. Well documented failures in weapons acquisition and contract negotiations, like the F-22 and F-35, exemplify why the GAO high-risk list only features headquarters issues within the DoD. As a result, the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mandated that the DoD implement cost saving measures to trim $10 billion from the headquarters budget over a period of 4 years, from FY 2015 to FY 2019, with half being trimmed by 2015.
But the DoD was determined to protect their chest by all means necessary. A September study by GAO revealed that the department, in a never-ending rebellious phase, will fail to implement the full cost savings by FY 2019. The $9.2 billion they did identify was an inaccurate estimate contained in a report filled with inconsistencies. In a July 2017 study, GAO stated that the Pentagon’s 2016 report to Congress halfway through the initiative did not provide reliable information on cost savings, mainly because their approach to estimating did not follow best practices. It failed to identify a specific plan to reduce spending, personnel, or programs. Lastly, GAO examined DoD’s internal findings and concluded that $5.3 billion of potential savings were “not auditable” because the baseline for reductions had not been identified. In other words, the DoD said they would contribute half of their toys for the garage sale before actually looking in the toy chest to see what was there.
A second progress report revealed that the DoD had further mastered the art of garage sale evasion. The May 2018 report (well past the deadline established in the 2015 NDAA) was examined by GAO in the September study and it was again found to be riddled with inconsistencies. According to GAO, in some sections of the May 2018 progress report, DoD refers to $5.3 billion in savings between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, while in another section $8.25 billion are identified as savings for the same time period. When questioned on the difference in figures, DoD provided no explanation, opting to take the sometimes effective but never suitable confused child approach.
In the FY 2019 NDAA, House lawmakers proposed handing over a second trash bag, this time cutting headquarters enterprise business operations programs by an additional 25% through 2021, along with a workforce reduction that would eliminate the entire Washington Headquarters Services office and all of its 4000 employees. While the measure was not approved, the idea of a second garage sale lingers, especially since Congress did pass limited measures to control funding percentages for headquarters programs. Whether the DoD intends to meet the requirements of the first reduction, or the new percentage caps, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the toy chest continues to overflow, the items that were supposed to be sold last year are now missing, more stuff is on the way for the holidays, and the child still hasn’t followed directions.