After years of missed deadlines, the mounting political pressure and a renewed commitment from the Trump administration might finally result in an audit. For the first time last year, both major political parties called for auditing the Pentagon in their campaign platforms. That unites everyone from Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz and the House Freedom Caucus. And last week, Trump’s nominee to serve as comptroller for the Pentagon, David Norquist, testified at his Senate confirmation hearing that he would insist on one whether the department could pass it or not. “It is time to audit the Pentagon,” Norquist told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in his opening statement.
As comptroller for the Homeland Security Department a decade ago, Norquist, the brother of the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, undertook the first successful audits of that much younger federal agency. The Defense Department is unlikely to meet a statutory deadline to be “audit-ready” by the end of September. But Norquist said he would begin the process even if the Pentagon’s financial statements were not fully in order, and he committed to having the report completed by March 2019.
What has prevented the Pentagon from being examined this way before? The answer lies somewhere “between lethargy and complexity,” said Gordon Adams, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center who was the top budget official for national security in the Clinton White House. “It hasn’t been done ever,” he told me, “partly because it’s incredibly complicated to do and also because there’s not a great, powerful will in the building to do it.”
The complexity of the project dates back to the Civil War, Adams said, when the Army and the Navy set up their own separate accounting systems. The Air Force also went its own way after its creation following World War II, and the military build-ups of the last four decades scrambled the department’s financial records many times over. The explosion of military contractors since 9/11 has made scrubbing the books harder still. Adams estimated that an audit would have to account for 15 million to 20 million contracting transactions each year. The Pentagon has spent several billion dollars over the last seven years just trying to consolidate its accounting systems in preparation for a potential audit.
Despite the ramp-up costs, the project has never risen to be a top priority; the Pentagon has simply been too busy fighting wars. “The military has repeatedly argued that they need to focus on the war effort and accountability can come later,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who previously served in a variety of national-security positions in the government. That excuse carried more weight with lawmakers in the years when the United States had hundreds of thousands of troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.