D. Dowd Muska


When Mission Creep Comes Home

November 22, 2012

Senator Tom Coburn has a singular ability to both frustrate and please fiscal conservatives.

The Oklahoman’s willingness to accept what he’s called “revenue increases” has incurred the wrath of anti-tax warriors, but on the asset side of the limited-government ledger, his crusade against pork and inefficiency is relentless. Coburn’s had the guts to question expenditures by some of the holiest federal cows, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Market Access Program, Department of Justice, National Science Foundation, and job-training programs.

The senator’s latest report, “Department of Everything,” explores “areas of the Pentagon budget that have little to do with national security where taxpayer dollars could be saved and deficits reduced.” It’s a damning document. Regardless of where one stands on the proper role of the U.S. military in a debt-drenched fiscal climate, it makes a persuasive case that the armed services frequently drift from their key missions and core capabilities.

Unless the Marines plan invade the Epsilon Eridani system sometime in the next few decades, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) shouldn’t have blown more than $1 million (so far) on its “100 Year Starship” initiative. The effort is aimed at fostering “a rebirth of a sense of wonder” in order to “make interstellar space travel practicable and feasible.” In September, a taxpayer-funded conference gathered space cadets to talk shop. To boost morale, Geordi and Uhura were on hand -- actor LeVar Burton and actress Nichelle Nichols attended, with the latter headlining an “intergalactic gala celebration.” (“[S]tarship cocktail attire” was recommended.)

Silly? Yes, but brainstorming about warp drives probably accomplishes more than analyzing the language used in social media. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research subsidized a Carnegie Mellon study of 380,000 Twitter postings. Apparently, “regional slang and dialects are as evident in tweets as they are in everyday conversations.” For example: “In many cities, something is ‘sumthin,’ but tweets in New York City favor ‘suttin.’ While many of us might complain in tweets of being ‘very’ tired, people in northern California tend to be ‘hella’ tired.”

Other less-than-essential endeavors that received research grants: the creation of an iPhone app “intended to help people manage their caffeine consumption,” a study of how golden shiner fish “can ultimately provide insights into humans’ political behavior,” a failed attempt to use a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute telescope for the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network, and an examination of how 18-month-old children interacted with “a metallic humanoid robot with arms, legs, a torso and a cube-shaped head containing camera lenses for eyes.”

Biologic research is another unnecessary DOD line item -- as a Washington Post writer put it, Congress appropriates billions “that have never been requested in any presidential budget, and are outside the Pentagon’s traditional mission of battlefield medicine and research.” (In 20 years, $3.6 billion has been spent on cancer alone.)

Other atrocities cited in “Department of Everything” include:

• Within U.S. territory, the majority of military-family children attend schools run by local governments. But the DOD will not relinquish the 64 schools it administers, “at a cost of over $50,000 per student,” inside the United States.

• In 2010, Washington “launched 679 renewable energy initiatives” -- the Pentagon accounted for 116, while the Department of Energy oversaw fewer than 100. An inspector general investigation concluded that “more than a third” of the “stimulus” revenue used by the DOD for “green energy” was squandered on “hastily planned” projects that achieved “lackluster returns on investments.”

• The Military Tuition Assistance program is of dubious value, since recruits who sign up for “the education benefits join because of the generous and well-known GI Bill,” which is administered by a separate bureaucracy, the Department of Veterans Affairs.

• The Defense Commissary Agency operates, at a cost of $1.2 billion, “a worldwide chain of 254 grocery stores.” It has 18,000 employees whose compensation is funded through federal appropriations, not store revenue.

Coburn estimates that if the profligacy identified in “Department of Everything” is addressed, ten-year savings would total “more than $67.9 billion.” But “Department of Everything” notes that its findings “are by no means an exhaustive list of non-defense spending programs at the DOD. They are merely a starting point for reviewing Pentagon spending that is unnecessary, duplicative, wasteful, or simply not related to defense.”

Fedpols who have convinced themselves that sequestration’s knife will “compromise readiness” and thus “put our nation at risk” should read Coburn’s report. “National security” is a target-rich environment for budget cuts.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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