Fiscal and Management Accountability at the Pentagon

Aerial view of the Pentagon building, August 2019.

This column contains a correction.

A generation ago, President Ronald Reagan appointed a blue-ribbon commission to examine Pentagon management and operations at a time when improving oversight and management was critical. The commission included David Packard and Bill Perry—two of the original architects of what we now call the Silicon Valley.

In their recommendations—which led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act that implemented the most significant reforms in a generation—they noted that “responsibility and authority” needed to be placed in the hands of those “at the working level, who have knowledge and enthusiasm for the tasks at hand.” The Packard Commission and the Goldwater-Nichols Act have had profound positive impact on the national security of the United States from acquisition strategy to military operations.

Today’s Pentagon faces several critical national security challenges, ranging from a global pandemic to a new version of superpower competition. At the same time, the responsibility for its accountability to the American taxpayer has never been higher.

In 2018*, Congress created the chief management officer (CMO) at the Department of Defense to coordinate business operations; scrutinize the independent defense agencies; and focus budget accountability at the department. The results have been mixed as the office has focused more on near-term budget cuts rather than the fundamental reforms that Congress originally envisioned.

To their credit, Defense Secretaries James Mattis and Mark Esper as well as their teams have made a full effort to perform a comprehensive fiscal audit of Pentagon activities. While incomplete and with much work remaining, it is important that the work toward financial accountability continue with vigorous energy in the future.

Over the summer, the Defense Business Board, which was directed by Congress to look into the CMO, offered sensible improvements to strengthen the office’s position with the type of “responsibility and authority” that the Packard Commission recommended in their report. It found that there is a strong need for a “top-level official” to work with the secretary of defense and deputy secretary to push business transformation at the department.

However, the Senate and the House in their respective defense bills would eliminate the position.

Rather than eliminate the position, Congress should make the CMO’s job more clearly defined by reaffirming its mandate for fiscal accountability at the Pentagon. Congress should also require that Department of Defense leaders issue an official charter for the position of CMO and codify the position’s authority at an appropriate level within the department and support the CMO with the necessary resources.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX), members of their respective Armed Services Committees, are urging that the position of CMO be preserved as a key tool for continuing the necessary press for further and better accountability. That is the right choice.

As the House and Senate hash out their differences on the defense bill, they should use the opportunity to enhance Pentagon fiscal accountability and management by making the CMO—working with and for the secretary and deputy secretary—an active partner at the Department of Defense with clearer responsibilities.

Rudy deLeon is a senior fellow at the Center for American progress and a former deputy secretary of defense. Brent Woolfork is a director of government affairs at the Center.

*Correction, September 23, 2020: This column was updated to correctly reflect year the CMO position was created.