WASHINGTON ― House Republicans convened a hearing on Thursday to spotlight the Defense Department’s repeated failures to pass an audit, with conservatives joining liberal Democrats in a scathing rebuke of the Pentagon’s financial management.
The hearing highlighted the emerging Republican schism between the party’s fiscal hawks and defense hawks on top of ongoing tension within the party over Ukraine aid.
“The U.S. spends more on defense than China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and Ukraine combined,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc., who convened the hearing as chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s national security panel. “The American people work diligently to earn every dollar, but it seems the [Defense Department] has become a master of squandering those funds without batting an eye.”
The Pentagon has never passed an audit, failing five in a row. Republicans on the panel joined Democrats in grilling John Tenaglia, the Defense Department’s principal director for pricing and contracting, on some of the underlying reasons for this failure. He attributed the repeated audit failures in part to the slow pace of retiring legacy systems.
Brett Mansfield, the Pentagon Inspector General’s deputy for audits, and Asif Khan, the financial management director at the Government Accountability Office, also testified.
“There have been instances as part of the audit process where [the Defense Department] themselves have found assets in warehouses like Black Hawk helicopters that weren’t on the property records,” said Khan. “In that respect, audit readiness really does impact the military’s readiness.”
Grothman noted that no one from the Pentagon comptroller’s office participated because the “entire senior leadership team was either out of the office or on vacation.” He convened the hearing the same week the House debated the $874 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., so far has sided with fiscal hawks. He’s resisted efforts to increase defense spending beyond President Joe Biden’s proposed $886 billion military budget – a 3.3% increase over this year – which Congress agreed to as part of the debt ceiling deal.
The places him at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Senate’s defense authorization bill, which the Armed Services Committee advanced last month, includes nonbinding language that calls for supplemental defense spending to increase the Pentagon budget beyond the debt ceiling cap.
Instead, House Republican leaders allowed a vote on a defense bill amendment that would require an annual Pentagon audit and cut the Defense Department budget by 0.5% if it fails. The amendment, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., was part of an agreement Republican leaders reached with the conservative Freedom Caucus to advance the defense bill. The vote is expected to occur by the end of the week.
“The only thing that’s actually growing faster than the [Defense Department] as a budget unit is the interest on our national debt,” Biggs said at the Oversight Committee hearing. Biggs said “there is no consequence” for the audit failures, criticizing the defense bill’s top line.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.” said her “my blood just boils” over the audit failures, decrying the Pentagon “wasting taxpayer dollars.” And Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said “the most ravenous leviathan of our government that devours the people’s wealth is the Department of Defense.”
Democrats on the committee joined in the criticism. Rep. Robert Garcia of California, the top Democrat on the House Oversight national security panel, referenced a May report from CBS’ 60 minutes detailing defense contractors price gouging the Pentagon.
He also urged lawmakers to vote against a series of National Defense Authorization Act amendments that would end aid to Ukraine after Grothman highlighted a Pentagon accounting error that inflated the cost of U.S. weapons sent to Kyiv by $6.2 billion. Those votes are also expected by the end of the week.
Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., noted that the Defense Department spends $41.6 million per year on Viagra, more money than it cost to repair a collapsed bridge in her Pittsburgh district. She also pointed to contractors losing “hundreds of millions” in spare parts for the F-35 fighter jet program.
Tengalia said the Pentagon is taking steps to address this issue by improving contract terms and conditions.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.