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House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., at a hearing in February, 2020.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., at a hearing in February, 2020. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday that his priority in 2021 is to find new ways for the Pentagon to spend its funding more effectively, as lawmakers continue to fight over how much money to give the Defense Department.

“There are not enough incentives right now in the way we spend money at the Pentagon to save money and get the best value for what you’re doing. We need to change that,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Lawmakers can debate whether the defense budget should shrink or grow, yet “whatever that number is, we need to get more out of that money being spent. That’s the big goal I have for this year,” he said at an event about the future of defense spending hosted by the Ronald Reagan Institute.

Last week, President Joe Biden proposed $715 billion for the Pentagon in its 2022 baseline budget, which is a modest increase from this year’s spending plan. The overall defense budget, which includes money for the Department of Energy and its nuclear weapons program, is $753 billion.

After Biden unveiled his proposal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle quickly criticized the amount for defense spending as too much or not enough.

Some Democrats have called for significant cuts to defense spending during the last year to pay for other priorities such as diplomacy, humanitarian aid and public health, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have called for a 3-5% increase in defense spending, largely to counter China.

Smith said Tuesday that the U.S. could achieve its defense goals with less funding than $753 billion if the government can “get smarter” about how the Defense Department spends its money. However, the congressman did not provide a specific number.

During the last 20 years, “we have spent defense dollars in a very ineffective way,” despite more funds funneled to the Pentagon, Smith argued.

A key part of ensuring the defense funds are used effectively is employing new technology such as artificial intelligence to cut costs.

Smith said a review of the budget should include the question: “Are there systems and weapons technologies and capabilities that for less money can shoot the same?”

The government must also pay troops well and take care of them to keep the military an all-volunteer force, he said. Cutting personnel costs to “get our way out of budget problems I think is very overstated,” he said.

The audit is also a key oversight tool, Smith said. Though an audit of the Pentagon can be expensive, it’s one of the only ways to pinpoint misused funds.

“The Pentagon still has huge chunks of money that are not properly accounted for,” he said.

Smith also pressed for a dramatic change in the way that the Defense Department manages its programs of record. He said the Pentagon must change its culture to reward people who provide creative solutions instead of “checking the boxes.”

Cammarata.Sarah@Stripes.com Twitter: @sarahjcamm

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