Did the Pentagon Just Make a $3 Billion Accounting Error—or Did It Do Something Even Worse?
The Pentagon’s “accounting error” will allow President Joe Biden to send an extra $3 billion in military aid to Ukraine without congressional approval. Was this deliberate?
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Pentagon has overcounted the value of the weapons it sent to Ukraine by at least $3 billion. The Defense Department had cited what newly produced weapons would cost, but Washington has primarily sent Ukraine older excess weapons from U.S. stockpiles.
The Pentagon says this means it has an additional $3 billion to spend on military aid to Ukraine—spending that wouldn't require congressional approval. While Congress has the power to set limits on the value of weapons the president can send using this method, the White House has the authority to choose which weapons to send and how to calculate their value.
This is convenient for Kyiv, which has continued to request assistance from Washington on top of the astronomical amount of aid it has already received.
In March, Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated that President Joe Biden's available Ukraine funding would run out by October or sooner, depending on the intensity of the spring counteroffensive. But Congress—especially the Republican-controlled House—has grown reluctant to hand Ukraine a blank check. Since the beginning of the 118th Congress, lawmakers have pushed to add restrictions and better monitoring of weapons sent to Ukraine. The Pentagon's accounting error frees up more money for the war, available now without any democratic debate.
The timing of this accounting error is suspicious. Senators have been warning that Congress may not agree to a 2023 federal budget that keeps up with inflation, and some House Republicans have suggested cutting aid to Ukraine in order to counteract the rising U.S. debt and to alleviate concerns over accountability and transparency. The government may need to impose across-the-board cuts (otherwise known as sequestration) as it did when Congress failed to agree on deficit-reduction methods 10 years ago.
Back then, the military used overseas contingency operations accounts—emergency funding budgeted separately from the Pentagon budget and immune from sequestration. The current emergency-style Ukraine funding allows the government to circumvent budgetary pressures, avoid getting caught up in issues like omnibus appropriations, and shield the aid from deficit-reduction spending cuts. By reapportioning the newfound $3 billion for Ukraine, the Biden administration could use emergency funding to support Kyiv unabated, even if the rest of the federal budget experiences sweeping cuts.
And if the error isn't deliberate? That would signal major flaws in Pentagon oversight. If around 7.5 percent of the nearly $40 billion the U.S. has committed to Ukraine was accounted for incorrectly, there are likely a litany of other financial miscalculations in the $858 billion military budget.
Whether this $3 billion mistake is a purposeful effort to circumvent Congress or a huge accounting error, it reflects a near-breakdown of the democratic process for military spending.