The title of this post might seem bizarre to many of you regardless of your political leanings. Those on the right might protest that corrupt and moronic government bureaucrats require more, not less, oversight. Those on the left might view the military as imperialistic or overly aggressive, requiring democratically elected politicians to maintain strong control over the Pentagon. Both sides are right to a degree. There is much waste and abuse within the military – ballooning budgets and unjust military judicial practices are a testament to this – and the military often acts in ways that do not match America’s liberal democratic ideals. That being said, the incessant oversight and micromanagement experienced by the military is often the cause of these deficiencies, not the solution.
Of course, the legislature should retain the ability to determine budgets and control whether the United States goes to war or remains at peace. Moreover, the legislature should step in if it discovers gross abuses or systematic misconduct within the military bureaucracy. It should step back, however, when it comes to procurement and day to day affairs because ultimately the professional bureaucrats, soldiers, and managers in the DoD are far better equipped to run America’s military than Congress.
At the heart of the problem is the principle-agent problem: The military will always know more than Congress because it is the institution that directly runs the vast armed forces of the country. Regardless of how many committees and watchdogs Congress establishes, there will always be a disconnect between what the military is actually doing and what Congress thinks it is doing. Sometimes bureaucrats intentionally mislead, and sometimes – even when DoD agents try to be transparent – certain information fails to be transmitted clearly. No amount of legislation and oversight will solve this principle-agent problem because the DoD is simply too vast to be completely regulated and overseen. All of this oversight creates massive waste, however. Instead of trying to develop path-breaking strategies and create the most cost-effective ways of maintaining military primacy, a vast number of bureaucrats is stuck writing reports to Congress that are rarely read. Instead of trying to innovate efficiently, many strategic thinkers and soldiers are forced to abide by mind-numbingly long procedures and regulatory mandates.
This problem becomes particularly pernicious in the acquisitions process. Instead of trying to find the most effective, cost-efficient, and efficient way to source weapons systems, the Pentagon is forced by Congress to embrace byzantine practices in order to ensure that every state gets a piece of the defense budget. In short, by allowing Congress to micromanage defense procurement, the U.S. ensures that defense acquisition is as inefficient as possible, causing massive waste and delays. If the U.S. wants to maintain its military predominance is the era of proliferating threats and shrinking budgets, it will need to trust professional bureaucrats to do their jobs. Instead of cluttering the process with confusing and counter-productive policies, the legislature should allow the Pentagon to streamline its procedures and run its agency as it sees fit. This does not mean that Congress should abdicate its responsibility to oversee government spending and foreign policy – Imperial Germany demonstrates the danger of an overly independent military and executive – but it does mean that Congress should let professionals do their jobs with as few roadblocks as possible.