Accountabilty

Coburn criticizes DOD as 'Department of Everything'

Department of Everything report cover

The cover of Sen. Tom Coburn's report illustrates his argument that DOD is spending funds on projects that have no connection to its mission.

Last year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research funded a study by Carnegie Mellon University to discover that language used by people on Twitter can show where they are from, revealed by regionalisms such as “y’all” and “yinz.”

Is that a good use of Defense Department funds? Not according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

“While this may be interesting to linguists or even potentially federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, it is difficult to see how spending limited resources to study the use of the slang and dialect by Twitter users in the United States advances the mission of either the Air Force or the Navy,” Coburn concluded in a new report called “The Department of Everything.”

Department of Everything

Read Sen. Tom Coburn's report here.

Watch Coburn's press conference here.

The senator’s report delves into what he calls “a lot of the stupid things that are happening.” In addition to the Twitter study, Coburn’s list includes DOD’s building of an app to warn iPhone users when their caffeine level is low.

The department, however, isn’t taking Coburn’s criticism lightly, defending the expenditures. For example, Air Force officials told Coburn that they awarded the grant to Carnegie Mellon to assess computational networks. Analyzing tweets wasn’t part of the statement of work, and the Air Force wasn’t aware of the results the university reported in its press release, they said.

Coburn proposes $6 billion in non-military research and development that would not take away from the combat personnel or their ability to perform on or off the battlefield. Overall, the report calls for $67.9 billion in cuts from research and various other programs, such as Pentagon-branded beef jerky and Pentagon-run microbreweries.

The report pinpoints areas where the Defense Department is spending billions of dollars that have nothing to do with the nation’s defense, the senator said during a press conference Nov. 15. He said Congress could transfer some of the programs, such as breast-cancer research, to other departments and consolidate the programs to save money. Or, he said Congress could cut the funding for some programs and do no harm to the department’s mission.

A DOD spokeswoman said the department has taken strides to spend its money wisely.

“The DOD budget is aligned to strategic priorities we have identified to keep America safe and maintain the strongest military in the world,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, defense press officer in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. “Over the past several years we have redoubled our efforts to make better use of the taxpayer’s defense dollar and meet our fiscal responsibilities.”

Coburn placed blame for the spending growth squarely on Congress’ shoulders.

The defense budget continues to increase because Congress has failed to do its oversight job, he said. Moreover, lawmakers are failing to carry out their responsibilities in much of the legislation they pass. Coburn said they give “way too much authority and judgment to the bureaucracies. And the reason we do that is because we don’t know what we’re talking about so we have to.”

In today’s budget climate, federal officials need to examine each corner of government spending, including the studies on Twitter, the senator said. He plans to offer “a ton of amendments” to the Senate’s fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 3254), which could come up for consideration in the coming days. However, Coburn was skeptical about whether or not Senate leaders would consider the amendments.

“That’s the dysfunction of Washington,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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