In his address to Congress, President Donald Trump pledged to eliminate the so-called defense sequester, a statutory limit on defense spending enacted in 2011, so that a $54 billion increase for the Pentagon would be possible. But that would require devastating cuts to other parts of the federal government, steep increases to the federal deficit or both.
What if there were a way Trump could get that military bump without spending one more dime of taxpayer money? And what if this involved collaborating with Congress so that both sides could claim victory over big government?
This is not at all far-fetched; in fact, there’s a shining example to follow. It was called the Truman Committee, and it offers a timely reminder that there are ways of getting things done in Washington that can redound to virtually everyone’s benefit — save, perhaps, for military contractors accustomed to spending like drunken sailors.
In 1940, Harry S. Truman was the junior senator from Missouri. He was fresh off a narrow re-election victory and without much of a reputation beyond his home state, and no one would have said the Democrat was made of presidential material at this point in his career. But that year gave him an opportunity when Congress approved a massive increase in military spending to counter threats from abroad that would ultimately result in World War II.
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Truman’s office began receiving now-familiar complaints about wasteful spending, pay-to-play contracts and other signs of corruption. So he decided to investigate these claims — personally. He got into his Dodge and hit the road, traveling thousands of miles to survey military installations throughout the country.
He came away with a conviction that corruption and waste were rampant and had the evidence to back it up. Workers paid full wages for doing nothing; valuable building supplies left to spoil in the winter weather; and contracts given to unqualified, inexperienced suppliers. Enraged, Truman took to the floor of the Senate and delivered the speech that arguably launched him to political greatness.
Truman traced the ways that large contracts had been awarded to companies on the basis of personal connections. Though he was willing to concede “friendship should not be a handicap to anyone seeking work in the War Department,” he expressed concern about what was driving the choice of contractors.
He proposed that the Senate create a special committee to examine all the contracts given out under the new dispensation to “find out if the rumors rife in this city have any foundation in fact.” But Truman made it clear he was skeptical.
Truman asked the Senate to vote on a resolution creating the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. It passed unanimously, and Truman was installed at its head.
The lasting contributions of the Truman Committee can be measured in blood and treasure. Over Truman’s four-year tenure, the committee ran up bills totaling just under a million dollars. But it is estimated to have saved thousands of lives, thanks to its investigations into everything from aircraft engines to landing craft.
More quantifiable was its effect on the bottom line. By some estimates, the Truman Committee saved approximately $15 billion ($230 billion in today’s money) by 1944; it amassed additional savings until it was disbanded in 1948.
Along the way, Congress learned how to stand up to a rather autocratic president and restored American faith in the power of government to spend taxpayer money prudently. In our own post- 9/11 era of massive defense increases, perhaps the president — who prides himself on driving a hard bargain — should partner with Congress and find himself a latter-day Harry Truman who could cut the fat from the military’s budget before writing yet another blank check.