Congress Should Strengthen, Not Undermine, the Pentagon's Chief Management Officer | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congress Should Strengthen, Not Undermine, the Pentagon's Chief Management Officer

The WasteWatcher

The Department of Defense (DOD) holds the distinction of enjoying the highest annual budget of any federal agency, while also being the sole agency to have never passed an audit.  Decades of press reports detailing wasteful defense spending have demonstrated that this is a dangerous combination.

In an effort to get the Pentagon’s business operations in order, members of Congress in fiscal year (FY) 2018 created the role of Chief Management Officer (CMO).  Elevated to the third-highest civilian role at the Pentagon, the CMO has the specific task of improving efficiency and locating savings in the Fourth Estate, which is made up of elements of the DOD that are not part of the military branches.  These include areas such as the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and a variety of agencies within the DOD that deal with logistics, accounting, and contract management.  The Fourth Estate employs approximately 380,000 individuals and has an annual budget of more than $100 billion.

Confirmed to the position on December 19, 2019, CMO Lisa Hershman has found a target-rich environment.  In a February 10, 2020 interview with Defense News, Ms. Hershman stated that the DOD is spending vast sums to stock its commissary system with items that are of limited interest to customers.  Of the 1.4 million items carried, nearly one million produce less than $1,000 in revenue each year.  These include 23 brands of apple juice.

The CMO’s efforts to find efficiencies across the Fourth Estate has already paid dividends.  The office of the CMO identified $4.7 billion in savings in FYs 2017 and 2018, followed by $6.5 billion in FY 2019.  The target for FY 2020 is set at $7.7 billion.  Moreover, all of these savings are being reinvested in warfighting, enhancing the ability of the DOD to perform its core mission.

Naturally, taming the bureaucratic beast will be a challenge, not least because of institutional inertia and the Pentagon’s supplicants in Congress.

In fact, some legislators have taken steps to unwind the CMO position, despite its successes under Ms. Hershman’s brief tenure.  The Senate version of the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would require the CMO office to be disbanded by September 30, 2022, with most of the authorities transferred to the Deputy Defense Secretary.  The House NDAA would eliminate the CMO office within 30 days of enactment, and enable the Secretary of Defense to choose where to transfer the role.

Ironically, House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who in the past had championed institutional reform at the Pentagon, now supports eliminating the CMO position.  

Hamstringing one of the few viable efforts at reform in the Pentagon is foolhardy, especially after such a limited amount of time.  Instead of undermining the CMO by rolling it into a position of less authority, Congress should support efforts to institutionalize the position within the DOD. 

A March 14, 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concurred with this assessment.  The report recommended providing a chartering directive to address the manner in which “the CMO’s authorities should be operationalized.”  The GAO also noted the current lack of clarity in the CMO’s ability to direct military departments on business reform issues, especially in the event of disagreement between parties.  Crucially, the DOD agreed with the GAO’s appraisal and recommendations.  Past GAO reports have detailed inefficiencies in the DOD’s business operations that have resulted in billions of dollars wasted.

Members of Congress – especially those who claim to strongly back the DOD – should fully support the CMO.  Failing to do so will snuff out one of the few prospects for institutional reform within the Pentagon.