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No Free Pass for Pentagon

July 17, 2002

Members of Congress are accustomed to battling the Pentagon to bring defense contracts to their districts and keep bases open. A more important conflict is now brewing: The Defense Department, using the cover of "too much bureaucracy," is bucking its obligation to provide full information to Congress.

Tensions between the legislative and executive branches are nothing new, but the Bush administration has been louder than most in claiming that the pendulum has swung too far toward Capitol Hill in recent decades.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has complained that bureaucracy ties up Pentagon officials, forcing them to spend too much time answering to Congress. Thus the Pentagon's proposal to do away with requirements to file hundreds of annual reports, which, the Pentagon says, usually go unread.

There are equally ambitious plans to ban strikes by Defense Department civilian contract workers and scrap Civil Service protection for civilian workers at the Pentagon. Even as the Pentagon receives many billions more dollars, it doesn't want to submit all of the reports needed for congressional (read: civilian) oversight.

Times staff writer Esther Schrader reported this week that administration officials say the Pentagon is the tip of the spear in the movement to relieve executive branch agencies of oversight considered unnecessary and burdensome. But the requirements did not spring up out of thin air.

Congress needs to monitor the executive branch, especially with an agency as powerful as the Defense Department. Civilian control of the military is one of the fundamental principles of this country. With a military budget of nearly $400 billion this year, the Pentagon needs more scrutiny than ever.

That's not to say it doesn't make sense to get rid of busywork. Congress has expressed a willingness to listen to the Defense Department's concerns and has agreed to eliminate 20 of the more than 300 reports required each year.

But the Pentagon should not receive blanket exemptions from environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Military officials argue that the restrictions make it difficult to find sites needed to train, a critical requirement. Yet giving the military a pass when it comes to the environment is too high a price. American military successes in Afghanistan are evidence that the nation can field excellent fighting forces without circumventing the laws designed to keep air breathable and soil clean.

The war on terrorism has increased Rumsfeld's profile and power. It should not be an excuse to do away with needed regulations and oversight of a massive, powerful bureaucracy.

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