For years, defense officials have pleaded for more money to stop the rash of aircraft crashes and to reduce casualties if war broke out with Russia or China. But a recent story suggests the Pentagon may have had some extra $100 bills tucked away in its thong.
Bloomberg's Anthony Capaccio and Roxana Tiron first reported that the Defense Department actually had too much money. Between fiscals 2013 and 2018, the Pentagon did not spend $28 billion in money appropriated by Congress, the Defense Department's Inspector General's Office found.
Initially, your friend and humble scribe was gobsmacked. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that any cuts or delays in defense spending would put troops in danger.
"As Congress' own National Defense Strategy Commission report puts it, and I quote here: 'The cost will not be measured in abstract concepts like international stability and global order; it will be measured in American lives,'" Mattis said at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
However, the Bloomberg story made the Pentagon look less like a cash-strapped college student rolling pennies to buy stale bread from a Jimmy John's going out of business sale; rather it gave the impression that the Defense Department is the proverbial drunken billionaire who is literally rolling in his money while being fed grapes by nymphs. (This is how I imagine Saddam Hussein would celebrate Mardi Gras at Kanye West's house.)
On Wednesday, the Pentagon's top money man tried to dispel the notion that the Defense Department has more money than it can spend.
The $28 billion represents the total number of money left over from five yearly Defense Department budgets, so it averages just under 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget for each of those years, said David Norquist, the Defense Department's comptroller.
"It's money that is no longer able to be put on new contracts, but is not currently on a contract or payment," David Norquist said while discussing the Pentagon's first-ever audit, which it failed.
"This is not unusual. So, typically at the end of the year, you've spent 99.5 percent of the money. As the years go by, contracts that were awarded for $100 end up getting closed at $97 -- $3 stays with the Treasury, so that number slowly creeps up."
Norquist is serving as comptroller while he is also performing the duties of deputy defense secretary. In layman's terms, he has a money clip that holds $2.7 trillion. Someone with that much paper deserves a Gangsta nickname, so he will be referred to as D-Norq hereafter.
As your friend and humble narrator already mentioned, the Defense Department failed the first audit in its history last year. When D-Norq announced the audit's findings, he did not tell reporters exactly how the Pentagon was wasting money. Rather, he stressed that the mere fact that the Pentagon had completed its audit represented a victory. (With audits and T-ball, everyone gets a trophy.)
That explanation was not good enough for Mark Skidmore, an economics professor at Michigan State University professor, who analyzed budget data and concluded the Pentagon could not account for an astounding $21 trillion spent between 1998 and 2015.
Newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a rising star for the Democrats – tweeted in December that the $21 trillion represents two-thirds of her plan for universal healthcare.
"That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon," she tweeted. "And that's before our premiums."
When your mathematically-challenged reporter asked D-Norq if the $21 trillion figure is accurate, the money man threw down accountant-style.
"If you go back to 1776, when the country was founded, and you add up all the money given to national security – either the Department of the Army, the Department of War, or the Department of the Navy – until the present, we have not received $21 trillion," D-Norq replied. "I think a lot of fact checkers looked at that one and rated it as clearly false. Thank you for bringing that one up. I know it draws some attention from folks and gets confusing."
Still, Skidmore told Task & Purpose that he stands by his findings, which were based on data provided by the Defense Department. He said he has asked U.S. government officials for further information but has not received any so far.
"The figure of $21 trillion comes from existing government reports," Skidmore said. "I guess my response to Norquist's comment that that's not possible is: These numbers actually come from our own government. We're just tallying them up over 17 years and the reports show that there are all of these transactions and adjustments that our own government says were unsupported."
Coming next week: Guest columnist Old Dirty Accountant analyzes whether cash really does rule everything around me.
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 13 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.