In 2007, a weekly reality cooking show debuted featuring two “Grill Sergeants” who, in front of a backdrop of checkered tablecloths and the fanfare of a Tonight Show-style house band, took to the grills to demonstrate proper food safety techniques.
It sounds like something that might air after shows like Iron Chef America or Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. But the show wasn’t a part of the line up on Food Network. It aired on the Pentagon Channel. And it was funded by American taxpayers through the Department of Defense.
As the cooking show aired, news headlines about the program read “Military Chefs Battle on Pentagon’s Cooking Show” and “Pentagon Channel Fired Up to Showcase Hot Platoon of ‘Grill Sergeants.’” And past show themes? Admiral’s Faves, and Saving Private Dining.
It begs the question: how is a show about “grill sergeants” a national security priority?
In full transparency, the show no longer exists. It was cancelled after three seasons. If you search for The Grill Sergeants on the Pentagon Channel, past episodes have been removed. However, it is a telling example of the types of unnecessary programs and waste that have existed within the Department of Defense.
No other federal agency has the budget power of the Department of Defense. I would argue this in itself isn’t wrong – our Constitution is clear in its directive that one of the most important roles of our federal government is to raise and support armies and navies.
However, in many ways, the Pentagon budget is a mess. The Department of Defense is one of only two federal agencies that have repeatedly failed to provide auditable financial statements since a 1990 law required them. Throughout my time as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I have made it a priority to press our Secretaries of Defense to make good on their promises to get the Pentagon’s books in order by its own goal of 2017. Yet, they have consistently failed to track on this goal, offering excuses along the way.
Most recently, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in October 2011 that the agency would produce a fully auditable “Statement of Budgetary Resources” by September 2014. Yet, the Pentagon now says it may miss its 2014 timetable for an audit. Last September, Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale told me that sequestration has further complicated any efforts the Pentagon is making towards audit-ready budget information. This is one reason I have opposed sequestration from the onset. It is a sloppy way to clean up defense spending by arbitrarily setting budget caps instead of letting a strategy drive our national security. Rather than providing a calculated, targeted approach to trimming or eliminating programs (like The Grill Sergeants) from the defense budget, sequestration takes a hacksaw to the entire budget, hallowing out military training programs and other vital national security priorities. While the Bipartisan Budget Act began to shift the trend lines for the first time in four years, we have a long way to go before I will feel comfortable that we are fully-resourcing our military’s readiness. While we continue to press this case, we cannot afford for the Department of Defense to continue to make excuses against bringing itself to an audit-ready position.
It should never have been the case that any of our federal agencies weren’t audited – and it should not be the case today. The fact that the DOD has not even complied in making itself auditable is unjustifiable. We need to conduct a full, clean audit of the Department of Defense so we can find savings within the defense budget, and have confidence that allocated monies are both accounted for and in line with supporting the mission to protect and defend our nation. On an encouraging note, I was pleased to see late last year that our Marine Corps had produced the first successful audit of a military service. Leave it to the Marines to go first in this challenging fiscal environment. But while this is a promising start, I will continue to hold the Department of Defense’s feet to the fire in its accountability to taxpayers and Congress.
It is possible to both support a strong defense budget that adequately provides for the needs of our men and women in uniform while also demanding that the Pentagon spend its dollars wisely. But we have to know where defense dollars are actually going first. A full audit of the Department of Defense would create an even stronger national defense, allowing us to better ensure that the agency is meeting its core goal of protecting our national security.
Randy Forbes represents the Fourth District in Congress.