What Is the Role of Congress? Oversight or Overlook

September 29, 2000

Comment: #389

Discussion Thread:  #s 169

Background article on congressional duties under the Constitution:  Reforming the Management of the National Defense: Can the National Defense Afford Congress?


[1] "Neck-deep in Pentagon Pork," St. Petersburg Times [Editorial], September 29, 2000. Excerpt attached.

Ever wonder WHY everyone wants to increase the defense budget even though:

  • Threats are evaporating,

  • Spending per unit of combat power is higher now than it was at the peak of the 1980s (because forces have shrunk faster than budgets), and

  • The accounting system is so corrupt that (1) no one can assemble the information needed to compute the size of or determine how to fix the military's problems and (2) the Defense Department's own Inspector General (IG) has to issue "Disclaimers of Opinion" every year he tries to fulfill this audit obligations in accordance with the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990?

Bear in mind, the CFO Act of 1990 was enacted to force the Executive Department to be accountable to Congress (and by extension, the American people). This law requires the Executive Department to produce annual accounts of it expenditures in accordance with requirements of the Accountability (power of the purse) Clause of the Constitution. The CFO Act also requires the Inspector General of each department to submit an annual audit verifying compliance with the law to Congress.

But each year, the Pentagon's own IG has found it necessary to issue a disclaimer of opinion, because the Pentagons books are packed with unsubstantiated "adjustments" to its list of financial transactions. In explaining its most recent disclaimer of opinion, in part because of $2.3 Trillion in unsubstantiated accounting adjustments, the IG concluded, "DoD internal controls were not adequate to ensure that resources were properly managed and accounted for, that DoD complied with applicable laws and regulations, and that the financial statements were free of material misstatements."

Readers can find the most recent IG and GAO reports on this subject, as well as other information at the following URL: Click here.

Given the Constitutional origins of the CFO Act, the repeated disclaimers of audit opinions, and the Constitution's assignment of the power of the purse to the Congress, a normal citizen might wonder why Congress isn't raising hell about the Pentagon's contempt for the Madisonian oversight theory of checks and balances, not to mention the people's money?

The theory of congressional oversight is the wrong way to look at the question. Remember, Madison was an 18th Century thinker and his old mechanistic theories of constitutional governance may not fit the more fluid relativities of post-modern governance. On the other hand, if we invert the question, we could remove the mismatch between the values we profess and are expected to uphold and those we exhibit by our actual behavior. Put another way: What if the Congress does not or should not care about accountability and what if defense spending is not about threats to our security?

This inversion of conventional wisdom immediately removes the moral dilemma posed by the mismatch between values and behavior, but it raises all sorts of thorny constitutional questions.

There is a way around the thorns, however: We could amend the Constitution to reflect the post-modern reality of role of Congress in a relativistic republic.

Confused? Actions speak louder than words. READ Reference 1 below: the editors of the Saint Petersburg Times have assembled a seminal real world example that will help you understand the subtle reasons why the more elastic de facto Theory of Congressional Overlook had already replaced Madison's de jure Theory of Checks and Balances in the management of the Defense Auction.

A amendment to the Constitution would tidy up our Constitutional house. Moreover, such an amendment would have the added advantage of restoring morality to government and efficiency to the Defense Auction by making it a constitutional imperative for politicians to bestow gifts at the right moment on those people by whose ignorance, and at whose expense, they amass their power.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1


Neck-deep in Pentagon pork

St. Petersburg Times [Editorial]
September 29, 2000



(Senate Majority Leader Trent) Lott (R. Miss.) showed up in Georgia the other day to lend his dubious help to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mack Mattingly. Speaking near the huge Marietta, Ga., Lockheed plant that builds C-130J military-transport planes, Lott warned that he would punish Georgians if they failed to elect Mattingly.

"You don't want all those C130s built in Meridian, Miss.," Lott told the crowd. "But if Mack is not up there (in Washington), I will do all I can to move the whole operation to Mississippi."