Sen. Tom Coburn cuts the fat at Pentagon in his ‘Department of Everything’ report


This December 26, 2011 file photo shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)
Walter Pincus
Reporter November 19, 2012

I want to generate support for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in his newest budget reduction effort targeting some of the low-hanging fruit at the Pentagon.

You don’t have to agree with all of Coburn’s recommendations in his new study, titled “Department of Everything,” in which, as he told reporters Thursday, he proposed cuts that could deliver $69 billion over 10 years by reducing or eliminating programs in areas “where the Pentagon works that have nothing to do with defense.”

Coburn lists some worthy targets. He points out the Defense Department runs 64 elementary and secondary schools at 16 military facilities where more than 19,000 students are taught by 2,000 teachers. That works out to a ratio of 9.5 students per teacher (plus overhead and management) while the average in public and private schools has been about 15 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The cost to taxpayers is more than $50,000 per student. “In contrast, the Department of Education has found the average annual cost per student in America is around $11,000,” according to the Coburn study.

This U.S.-based program, which in fiscal 2010 cost $468.8 billion, has historic roots in a time when American schools were segregated in fact, if not by law. Thus the schools in the system are in five Southern states, with one in the North. The study points out that “children of military members stationed in states with large military populations such as California and Texas attend local public schools, many of which are located on the base.”

Coburn also took a whack at top-heavy military leadership. “At the end of World War II, we had 12 million men under arms,” he told reporters. “We had 2,000 flag officers and generals. Today we have a thousand flag officers and generals and 1.2 million under arms.”

As Washington Post reporters Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe wrote Sunday, four-star generals “enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire,” and even three-star generals get retirement pensions of more than $200,000 a year.

Returning to the “Cold War ratio of five general officers per 10,000 troops (as opposed to the seven the Pentagon has today) . . . could mean a reduction in 800 support personnel costing $100,000 per year . . . [and savings of] $800 million over ten years,” Coburn’s study says.

I’m in the senator’s camp.

He also wants to eliminate another one of my favorite excess Pentagon activities: the Defense Department’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). That effort has spent $7 billion in Pentagon funds since 1992 doing research, originally on breast cancer but in recent times on 20 or more forms of cancer and other diseases. It began as a $25 million earmark for breast cancer research because of a cap on funds for the National Institutes of Health.

When Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced his earmark in 1992, he said: “The Army is not doing this research. The Army is taking this money and they are contracting out to do the research. They can do it with the National Cancer Institute at NIH.” But the next year, thanks to grass-roots breast cancer lobbying groups, Congress earmarked $210 million for Defense to run its own peer-reviewed breast cancer research — programs, according to Coburn’s report, that “have never been requested in any presidential budget, and are outside the Pentagon’s traditional mission of battlefield medicine and research.”

He’s quoting a column I wrote in March 2011. Coburn adds that the overhead costs for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command to run this program are huge, topping $45 million in 2010, “funding that did not go for our national security or for actual medical research and development,” according to the report.

He also offers a medical professional’s critique: “By listing out funding allocations for specific diseases, the congressional defense committees are micromanaging disease-specific medical spending far outside their expertise.”

Coburn doesn’t claim he’s solving the debt crisis or avoiding the “fiscal cliff.” But he was quick to point out that “we need to talk about what has actually happened and undermine a little bit of the BS” that’s been used to describe defense reductions.

He even takes on his GOP colleagues, telling reporters he recognized that “there is a little problem in terms of the Republican Conference . . . having a blind eye on spending [where] it’s okay to cut spending anywhere except the Defense Department.”

“There have been no real cuts yet to the Pentagon,” he said. “There just hasn’t been the hoped-for desired increases in spending, and so therefore if we didn’t get the increase in spending, we call that a cut in Washington.”

He’s also realistic. Some of the $6.9 billion a year he’s trying to save would be transferred to other Pentagon programs. So, he said, “you probably got $4 billion a year . . . that you wouldn’t take away from a procurement of aircraft or new rifles or new machine guns.”

Coburn plans to offer amendments when the defense authorization and appropriations bills come to the Senate floor. But he recognizes that “while others may claim cutting these initiatives would harm essential medical and scientific research, education, and other important priorities,” he will argue that “all of these activities are already being addressed by other, more appropriate federal, state, local, and private entities.”

These may sound petty, but they are not. Traditionally, when faced with cuts, the Pentagon has trimmed what it knows Congress will restore, such as troops, airplanes and ships, and not things it doesn’t need, like Coburn’s examples. And — my pet — reducing that $320 million for military bands.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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