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Defense Spending

After I graduated from George Mason University, I went to work for a federal contractor in Northern Virginia. For the next five years, I spent most of my time working as a web developer on a Department of Defense web site. The office I worked for fell under what was then the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment (DUSD(I&E))

I had then — and still have — a great respect for our military services. My father served as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard for more than twenty years, and I spent many of my formative school years alongside the children of officers and enlisted members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. One of my closest friends is a member of the Virginia Army National Guard and served two tours of duty in Iraq during the global war on terror.

When I went to work with that DoD contractor, I was proud to be supporting — in my own small, almost insignificant way — the mission of our uniformed services. When I walked the halls of the Pentagon on my way to some meeting or review, and I saw people in uniform, I thought about what they had faced and what sacrifices they — and their families — had made. I was always conscious of the fact that they were doing it for me, and other undeserving people like me who didn’t have the guts to do what they were doing. Especially then, when the war on terror was at its height, too many of those men and women in uniform were coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan in flag-draped caskets. I thank each and every one of them.

Unfortunately, those five years as a DoD contractor weren’t all about pride and thankfulness. I observed first-hand how wasteful and dysfunctional our government can be.

The particular web site I worked on needed to be redesigned and rebuilt. The office that had responsibility for it — an Army office — contracted the redesign project to an office in the Navy, which spent two years doing…pretty much nothing. Eventually the contract was terminated and re-bid to a private business, but for only half the money it would really take — on the argument that it was already half-done, when it wasn’t. In the end, a web site that should have cost well under a million dollars had cost the taxpayers more than three million, and still ended up being only half finished.

You can’t even imagine how frustrating this was to me, as a low- to mid-level IT guy who really cared about the mission of the Department of Defense. I had to watch millions of dollars go down the toilet and I had no way to stop it.

Let me really boil this down for you. I was working as a content manager on the web site we’re talking about. I didn’t build the infrastructure or design the technical implementation; my job was, quite literally, just putting stuff on the web site, changing stuff on the web site, and deleting things from the web site. I was paid roughly $22/hour, plus the typical private-sector health and 401(k) benefits.

But I was billed to the government at something more like $90/hour. Yeah, my company needed to pay all its overhead costs, cover the cost of the benefits, and so on. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the cost of my employment to my company was double my take-home pay — $44/hour.

There’s no reason the government needed to hire a contractor to control what went on this web site. They could have just hired a federal worker to serve in the role that I served in…and if they had hired me directly, they could have paid me $44/hour (pay plus benefits) instead of paying $90/hour to my contractor to get the exact same person doing the exact same work.

Here’s the reality that most politicians aren’t willing to talk about: If we reformed the civilian DoD workforce, and the management of DoD programs, we could drastically cut defense spending without cutting any important defense programs.

I completely support our men and women in uniform. I completely support significant investment in defense. I believe in the concept of “peace through strength.” But I also demand accountability and transparency in government spending, and I know from my own personal experience that the DoD wastes a lot of money, and is capable of maintaining their current level of readiness with significantly less money than we give them today.

In the end, I support significant reductions in defense spending, but in a way that does not reduce military readiness or sacrifice national security.