Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks got defensive over the Pentagon’s budget this week, after comedian Jon Stewart pressed her on spending priorities in the military. The conversation turned argumentative as the two debated what counts as abuse and corruption in the Department of Defense and how that hurts active-duty service members.
The former The Daily Show host spoke to Hicks at a symposium put on by the War Horse at the University of Chicago on Thursday, April 6. The conversation spanned just over an hour, discussing “The Human Impact of Military Service,” but the most rancorous moment came when Stewart brought up the Department of Defense’s trouble keeping track of its funds and equipment.
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In the most recent Pentagon audit, the chief comptroller found that the military could not account for more than 60 percent of its assets. That is where Stewart, a long-time advocate for veterans, said that results like that reflect “waste, fraud and abuse.”
The two exchanged tense remarks over the framing, with Hicks arguing that the results of the audit do not show corruption. She called his assertion completely false, while Stewart countered, noting that even though so much is unaccounted for, “we got out of 20 years of war and the Pentagon got a $50 billion raise.”
The 2022 audit, released in November, marked the fifth year the Pentagon had failed its audit (the process started in 2017). Stewart was almost correct in his critique — this year’s proposed budget increases the Pentagon’s funding by $26 billion.
Hicks asked Stewart to explain what he saw was the issue with the Pentagon’s budget. Stewart hammered in on his point, talking about conditions service members are dealing with. He pointed to the issue of food insecurity with many service members and their families struggling.
“Now, I may not understand exactly the ins and outs, and the incredible magic of an audit. But I’m a human being who lives on the Earth and can’t figure out how $850 billion to a department means that the rank and file still have to be on food stamps,” Stewart said. “To me, that’s fucking corruption. And I’m sorry. And, if like, that blows your mind and you think that’s like a crazy agenda for me to have, I really think that that’s institutional thinking, and that it’s not looking at the day-to-day reality of the people that you call the greatest fighting force in the world.”
At that comment the audience applauded.
Stewart added that he was “surprised that the reaction to these questions are ‘you don’t know what an audit is, bucko.’ Like that’s just weird to me.”
Stewart has been a vocal supporter of veterans fighting for expanded benefits and healthcare. He has regularly been in Washington, D.C. pushing for the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act. And he’s not wrong about hunger in the ranks. In November, the Associated Press reported as many as 160,000 active-duty service members were experiencing food insecurity, as inflation rose. In August, the U.S. Army said that soldiers struggling with costs could try different financial assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
Hicks called food insecurity a “major priority” for the department. The military is aiming to boost pay by 5.2 percent this year (following a 4.6 percent increase last year), but Hicks said that the bigger issue isn’t hunger exactly, but more availability when service members come off shifts, and what type of food is on and around military sites. She said the Department of Defense is also boosting basic allowances.
Currently the Biden administration has proposed an $842 billion budget for the Department of Defense for the 2024 fiscal year, which would be a 3.2 percent or $26 billion increase over the 2023 budget. That includes the pay increase Hicks mentioned.
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