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Alleging Republican 'blind eye' on defense spending, GOP senator proposes cuts

A Senate Republican fiscal hawk offered a 74-page menu of Defense Department spending cuts Thursday that could save taxpayers nearly $68 billion over 10 years. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he and his staff had identified several categories of “non-defense spending at the Pentagon,” outlays which he said had “little to do with national security.”

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Sen. Tom Coburn speaks to a journalist at the U.S. Capitol September 19, 2012 in Washington, DC.

At a Capitol Hill press conference, Coburn accused his fellow Senate Republicans of “having a blind eye on spending.” He summed up their approach as “It’s OK to cut spending anywhere except the Defense Department.”

But, he said “to be legitimate and have any integrity on the issue … everything has to be on the table.”

In the fiscal year which ended Sept. 30, defense outlays amounted to $651 billion, 18 percent of total federal spending, which was a decline of about 3 percent from the prior fiscal year.

One target of Coburn’s proposed cuts is personnel. He said there were too many admirals and other high-ranking officers for the size of the military. “We almost now have an admiral for every ship in the Navy,” he told reporters.

Despite much dire talk about the impeding spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act – which is part of the “fiscal cliff” at year’s end – there have been “no real cuts yet to the Pentagon,” Coburn said.

Chuck Schumer and Tom Coburn visit Meet the Press to discuss CIA Chief David Petraeus' resignation, the impending fiscal cliff and the aftermath of the 2012 race.

He said members of Congress hadn’t gotten some of “hoped-for, desired increases in spending – and so therefore if we didn’t get the increase in spending, we call that a ‘cut’ in Washington.”

Coburn has also proposed a bill to audit the Defense Department. “One of the biggest problems in the Pentagon is that they have no idea where they’re spending their money – and if you can’t account for it, you can’t measure it and you can’t manage it.”

He said, “I’m a budget hawk, but I’m also a military hawk – I want us to have the best equipment, the best equipped military in the world.” But when the Pentagon buys jets, missiles and other military hardware, Coburn said “we’re getting a whole lot less and spending a whole lot more.”

He also said, “Congress is a failure when it comes to oversight – and beneath that, we’re a failure when we write legislation because we give way too much authority and judgment to the bureaucracies – and the reason we do that is that we don’t know what we’re talking about, so we have to (give authority to executive branch bureaucrats), because we’re not up to speed in terms of level of knowledge … when we legislate.”

Coburn also said $37 billion in cost savings could be achieved by not assigning 340,000 members of the armed forces tasks that could be performed by civilians. He cited an analysis by Defense Business Board, an outside group of veterans and civilians which advises the defense secretary, which found “there is a sizable portion of the active military who are performing what would otherwise be not inherently government work or work that should be more appropriately assigned to DoD civilians. The military are compensated at rates substantially greater than their civilian counterparts….”

Although he’s not a member of his party’s Senate leadership and not a member of the Appropriations or Armed Services committees, Coburn does have some credibility on fiscal matters. He served on the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission in 2010 and voted for its recommendations of spending cuts and revenue increases through limiting or even eliminating tax deductions and other tax breaks, such as the tax-free status for most people of employer-provided health insurance.