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Senator Claire McCaskill was in Springfield over the weekend to stop by the Veterans Cemetery in Springfield to make sure that the scandals that have rocked Arlington National Cemetery are not also happening across the country. Last year, a report revealed that hundreds of graves at Arlington were either unmarked or mismarked, and some of the ashes of America’s fallen soldiers and sailors had been discarded with the trash. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has this interview with the senator.
Moore: Senator, thank you so much for joining us.
McCaskill: Great to be with you.
Moore: Can you tell me what you learned here in Missouri that you’ll be taking back with you to Arlington National Cemetery, as it continues to recover from its embarrassing revelations of mismanagement?
McCaskill: I was encouraged by what I saw at the Veteran’s Cemetery there in Springfield—that they have redundancies in their systems. And they are double checking for accuracy. And they are making all of their records digitally available. And most importantly, what Arlington had never done: people who want to visit someone at the cemetery in Springfield, they can go to a kiosk outside of the administration building, and actually punch in their loved one’s name, and find out right there, on a computer screen, where they go in the cemetery to actually pay their respects. That’s something that never has been available at Arlington, because they were basically running it on paper, and shoeboxes, and three-by-five cards. And they were never checking for accuracy. It was just a mess.
Moore: Can you tell me, Senator, how much of the maintenance that is done at Arlington is done by contractors—private contractors?
McCaskill: A lot of those contracts have been cancelled. In fact, there were 27 different contracts, including the contract to keep track of the records, which brought this to my committee. We’ve spent millions of dollars trying to put all the records on a computer system and allow there to be cross-checks and double-checks, and all that money had just gone up in smoke.
Moore: I want to talk, then, on really, the failure of oversight and the mismanagement of contracting by Congress on important matters like this. This scandal was, in part, a case of mismanaged contracts. But it’s not an isolated case: there’s almost an epidemic, it seems, of poor oversight—much of which has been reported in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, can you explain how the government got to this point?
McCaskill: Well, I’ll tell you how it got to this point. First, you should understand that this committee has been in existence for less than two years. And I asked for the committee to be created. Because when I came to Washington as an auditor, I particularly, knowing my history and knowing that Harry Truman, whose seat I sit in, that he cut his teeth in Congress on oversight of war profiteering and contracting in World War Two. And I knew when I got there that there was work to be done. That’s when I realized we needed an entire committee to look at the length, and breadth and depth of the contracting scandals that are occurring in the federal government.
During the [George W.] Bush administration, there was a real move to shrink the size of the federal government. The dirty little secret was, they exploded the number of private contracts. So, when recently, when some of my Republican colleagues wanted to reduce the number of employees at the Department of Homeland Security , I said, ‘That’s not our problem. We need to reduce the number of contractors at the Department of Homeland Security, because they make more money than the federal employees.’
Moore: Lastly, Senator, can you touch on the costs of the actual oversight itself…and is that something—the oversight—is that something that might be on the chopping block now that many Americans are very concerned about running a leaner, trimmer federal government?
McCaskill: Well, we can’t cut off our nose to spite our face. And that’ s one of the reasons I’ve been working very hard to make sure that the Government Accountability Office (GOA), which are the eyes and ears for taxpayers, the federal auditors that go in and find problems—we can’t cut them. We should not cut the inspector generals who are out there uncovering…in fact, it was an inspector general, based on a whistleblower, that first brought the Arlington scandal to the attention of Congress. What I learned in Iraq, when I was there on contracting oversight, [was that] the person who was supposed to be watching to make sure that the contracts were being performed in a cost-effective way was generally the low man on the totem pole in the unit who was handed a clipboard with no training. And sometimes, we can’t be penny wise and pound foolish. We’ve got to continue to invest in the people who oversee contracts, and our eyes and ears investigators and auditors that uncover the waste and corruption and the abuse that we know is present in many of these contracts. But if we don’t have those people on the ground, we will never find it.
Moore: Senator Claire McCaskill, thank you very much.
McCaskill: Thank you so much.