volkswagen

(Image: James R. Martin / Shutterstock)

We’re now getting another taste—in our mouths, our lungs, our brains—of what the ongoing assault on the federal government’s watchdog function is doing to all of us.  As we’ve just learned, Volkswagen rigged its software to fool the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into allowing nearly 500,000 diesel cars on the road that, year after year, have been spewing 40 times the allowable level of nitrogen oxide pollutants into our airspace.

Since EPA is one of the anti-government right’s favorite targets, the budget for preventing harms like this has suffered for years.  As the Washington Post reported last week, an engineer at one of the agency’s labs had invented a device that could have detected the fraud more than twenty years ago.  Except that in 2001 EPA decided to husband its resources by closing the lab down. The Post quotes the lab’s testing manager saying, “When this all came out in the news about VW, my first thought was, ‘Wow, we could have been all over this.’”

Now let’s look at the right’s favorite agency, the Department of Defense.  There the right’s attack has been focused not on waste and fraud in its budget but on the parts of the agency tasked with finding the waste.  Every year DoD’s Inspector General’s office reports that it no longer has enough people to do its job adequately, and that the situation is getting worse.

It would be hard to argue with the idea that buying weapons that don’t work is wasteful.  So in 1983 Congress created the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Pentagon to prevent this by running tests, independent of the contractors, to identify defects in these systems as they are being developed. It has been a target of DoD’s own program managers, and their allies in the defense industry, and in Congress, ever since.

In the defense policy bill now sitting on the president’s desk, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the House took another jab at the Pentagon’s testing office. As Politico reported, it inserted a line requiring the Office to ensure that their work “do[es] not result in unnecessary increases in program costs or cost estimates or delays in schedule or schedule estimates.”  The Senate then applied a broader brush to this warning, expanding it to include the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Defense Contract Audit Agency, the IG and “the heads of other defense audit, testing acquisition and management agencies.”

Another thing we can all agree on: Don’t slow down projects and add to their costs for no good reason. So this year the Government Accountability Office was tasked with judging the DoD testing office’s work on this score. They found every case they examined to be based on “valid and substantive concerns,” and most “with limited cost and schedule impacts to programs.”

And what about the costs of going ahead to build weapon systems that have to be fixed or scrapped later? There, Exhibit A is the most expensive system ever devised, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or what Esquire magazine recently dubbed “one of the epic money pits of all time, even by Pentagon standards” and “still the worst military investment ever.” What until recently had been referred to as the trillion dollar program is now pegged at more like a trillion-and-half.  The testing office has for years been finding defects in one thing after another: its landing gear tires, its ignition systems, its oxygen system, its fuel tanks and its hydraulic systems.  To name a few.

In May the Marine Corps tested the plane in what it called real-world conditions and declared it ready for battle.  The testing office vehemently disagreed, noting that these conditions didn’t include actually carrying the weight of its bombs and missiles, or bad weather. A plane that could withstand lightning strikes, for example, would require additional fixes, i.e. more money.

Congress’ response to these concerns? They ordered up six more planes for the Marines than the president requested.  Think it’s these pesky testing facilities—at EPA, at DoD—that are costing us?  That reining them in is the way to save money and make us safer?  Think again.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.