WASHINGTON — Anyone can misplace a sock, or a screwdriver. It takes the US government to lose a $468,000 floating crane.
The results of the first-ever audit of Uncle Sam are in, and they aren't pretty. Ordered up by Congress four years ago, the effort applied private-sector accounting and financial standards to federal operations. Among its conclusions: US management systems are so weak that the government can't account for billions and billions of dollars of assets.
Missing items include two Navy utility boats ($174,000 each), 15 military jet engines, and the maritime crane. The Army, according to the report, can't find an Avenger surface-to-air missile launcher.
It's true that the government is an intrinsically different institution from a corporation.
But "I don't think it's unrealistic to require that they not lose missile launchers," said Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, head of a Senate governmental affairs panel.
The multiyear audit was carried out by the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congressional General Accounting Office. It gave the federal government a "disclaimer" for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 1997. In the language of the green eyeshade set, that means auditors could not turn up enough information to even hazard an opinion about the overall state of the government's finances.
Besides its recordkeeping problems, the government can't adequately estimate outstanding environmental cleanup estimates, and has no idea of the future cost of such federal credit programs as student loans.
Some US departments and agencies did better than others. Ten produced acceptable financial information, including the Education Department, the Social Security Administration, and NASA.
Fourteen flunked. Among those the auditors considered laggards were the Departments of Transportation and Defense.
The administration generally praised the audit as a first step towards cleaning out a 200-year old financial closet. But Defense Department officials reacted, well, defensively.
"We don't want to turn an army of warriors into an army of auditors," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
Bacon said that slapping a value on Fort Sill, say, is a fruitless exercise - and that lost pieces of equipment such as the missile launcher may just be in transit, or have arrived recently at a new location.