An outspoken Republican spending hawk questioned Thursday why, in an era of austerity, the U.S. military tapped a program for developing new weapons to create a delicious new beef jerky.
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma also pointed out that the Pentagon funded an iPhone app to warn about low caffeine levels, runs microbreweries, conducts research into how babies and robots interact, and built a roadside bomb detector with the same accuracy rate as a coin flip.
He used these examples to argue that the Defense Department could save billions of dollars each year by eliminating programs that are not related to national security.
In a 73-page report titled, “Department of Everything,” Coburn estimated the government could save at least $67.9 billion over a decade by changing how the Pentagon spends money. Coburn said savings like that could be used to pay for bombers, submarines and ammunition — or to pay down the $16 trillion-plus national debt.
Coburn’s latest broadside against excessive spending in the defense budget may indicate that not only liberals but also some conservatives are going to be more frugal about Pentagon spending as the country’s fiscal problems deepen. In fact, even if sequestration does not occur starting next year, most experts believe Congress and the Obama administration could reduce the defense budget over the next decade by as much — or more — than the $500 billion reduction to previous plans that sequestration would trigger. Coburn’s new report could become a starting point for budget cutters.
The senator acknowledged to reporters Thursday that most Republicans who are otherwise fiscally conservative have a “blind spot” when it comes to scrutinizing defense spending. Many Republicans believe “it’s OK to cut spending everywhere but at the Defense Department,” he said. “But to be legitimate and to have any integrity on the issue, everything has to be on the table.”
Coburn’s most colorful examples of questionable spending appear to be new to this report. But he has articulated his more fundamental ideas for decreasing the Pentagon budget in previous reports and statements.
These include proposals to reduce the $212 billion that Coburn estimated the Pentagon spends on “overhead” — an amount he said exceeds Israel’s gross domestic product. He would decrease by at least one-fourth the number of active-duty military personnel who perform basic support jobs and instead have those jobs performed by federal civilians for less money. He would reduce the ratio of generals and admirals to junior officers and enlisted personnel. He wants to jettison Defense Department medical research that has nothing to do with combat disorders and injuries and that often duplicates work that he and others believe is done more effectively at places such as the National Institutes of Health.
Also on his target list is the Pentagon’s operation of 64 schools on 16 military bases in the United States — at a cost he pegs at $50,000 per student, or four times the cost elsewhere. And he wants to do away with tuition assistance programs, grocery store operations and alternative-energy research.
Coburn blames Congress for creating many of the programs, such as medical research, that now have taken on a life of their own.
“Congress is a failure when it comes to oversight,” he said. “Beneath that, we’re a failure when it comes to legislation.”
But, when asked whether he would seek to amend the defense authorization bill (S 3254) or some other measure to put some of his recommendations into action, Coburn said he would be drafting some amendments, but he did not sound optimistic there would be time on the Senate’s crammed calendar for them to be considered.