The few veterans serving in Congress have a unique ability to criticize the Pentagon without having to worry about accusations that they don’t support the military. That was on full display Thursday at a summit in Washington D.C. when reps Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), both military veterans, squared off against Pentagon officials and accused the DOD of continuing to spend irresponsibly even as critical programs have been cancelled hurting military readiness.
In a panel discussion with Defense One senior Reporter Stephanie Gaskell Hunter and Kinzinger pulled no punches. As two of a small number of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans currently serving in Congress both highlighted their responsibility to match up the Department of Defense spending with broader American strategic goals and acknowledged their unique ability to question the DOD because of their experience.
Hunter has already gained some attention for aggressively scrutinizing Defense Department policies, particularly in the area of acquisitions. During a Congressional hearing in April of 2013, Hunter questioned Chief of Staff of the Army General Ray Odierno about a costly DOD acquisition called DCGS (Distributed Common Ground System). The Congressman asked why deployed units were not getting access to commercial off the shelf alternative to the sometimes-faulty DCGS system, called Palantir, for use in theater. In a fiery retort General Odierno blasted Hunter for posing such a question then getting up to leave without waiting for a response. Hunter, in a move that made him look more like a Marine Major than a Congressman, replied to the General: “I had that prerogative when I’m sitting up here.”
Now Hunter is back at it. When questioned about the possible reasons for the “wall” between Congress and the Department of Defense Hunter cited the Pentagon’s “arrogance.” An arrogance he qualified, which is probably a result of the military’s elevated political importance over the last twelve years of war.
On the issue of ending the sequester Hunter mentioned the difficulty of calling for its repeal in light of the DOD’s reputation for waste. “How do we look to our colleagues and say sequester needs to go away, when they can point to dozens and dozens of wasted programs within DOD.” There is no doubt Hunter’s experiences in uniform strengthen his belief that the DOD is unable to effectively manage its resources.
Hunter also suggested that wasteful military programs were stealing funding away from critical training and readiness requirements. “We are stopping kids from going to jump school,” Hunter said, suggesting that while paratrooper training had been cancelled due to spending cuts, non-essential big budget acquisitions were unaffected. Though Hunter personally voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011 it was that law, not any Pentagon action, that led to the sequester, which mandates across the board cuts.
After getting visibly exasperated speaking about the Pentagon’s acquisition process and calling the Defense budget processes “ridiculous,” Hunter acknowledged the bureaucratic and structural difficulties inherent in fixing these programs. He noted that all three of the last Secretaries of Defense had attempted acquisitions and budget reforms, and despite their personal involvement, had made relatively little progress.
Congressman Kinzinger took a more conciliatory tone, agreeing with Hunter’s critique but emphasizing his desire to work with military leaders to ensure a continued American “active defense” and to stop an “American foreign policy retreat in the Middle East.” He went on to list some of the critical areas where he thought DOD resources should be focused, including threats from Russia, China, and non-state actors. Finally, both Congressmen called for greater Presidential leadership on issues of the Defense budget, emphasizing that the Republicans in the House could not be wished away and must be worked with in order to find a deal.
In a later interview Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale was asked about the apparent divide between Congressional veterans and the DOD and Hunter’s criticisms in particular. Hale’s response was diplomatic. “I don’t remember at least myself or other senior officials ever turning down requested meetings with members of congress.” Hale, like multiple other military panelists underlined the critical importance of having Congress reach a budget agreement so it can give the DOD a number to plan off of for future spending.
The Undersecretary went on to describe the divisive politics behind sequestration and the impossibility of pleasing both parties. “We just don’t know some of the answers that they’d like, and some of it frankly might also be they don’t like the answers they’re hearing. There are two parties on the Hill and they don’t always agree.”
Hunter and Kinzinger may not be getting the answers they like but their questions stem from first hand knowledge of the egregious waste perpetrated by the Defense Department in Iraq and Afghanistan.