Congress wrapped up 2022 by passing its annual defense spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, as well as a $1.7 trillion omnibus to fund the government and avert a shutdown. Both were signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The way the U.S. funds its priorities can be messy, and it can sometimes seem like an endless grind for members of the bureaucracy. Budget drills can seemingly involve briefing Congressional legislative assistants who don’t know what they’re talking about, only for Congress to do whatever it wants to do anyway, cutting or funding programs based on nothing members have heard, but rather, on politics alone.

That might, however, be a feature of the system, rather than a bug.

“It’s not fair to say that Congress makes bad budgetary decisions,” says Daniel Schuman, the policy director for Demand Progress, a civil liberties organization. “Well, some of their decisions are truly horrendous. But I think it’s better to say that it’s a political process where lots of people have the ability to have input into that process.”


This is the simple version. In theory, every year the president makes a unified budgetary request and sends it to Congress around March. The budget request basically means nothing, because Congress is not beholden to it, and appropriators are happy to throw it out.

Meanwhile, budget committees inside Congress are supposed to work together and figure out the top line numbers of the budget. Next, appropriations committees in each house of Congress are supposed to work down from these top line numbers based on the priorities that Congress has adopted. This process rarely works out because of things like the Senate filibuster or divided Congressional control.

There is mandatory spending and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending is something like Social Security. Discretionary spending might be some new fighter jet technology or after school program. (Discretionary funds are divided into defense and non-defense spending. The National Defense Authorization Act handles the defense part.)

“Decisions about where to spend money reflect the administration’s priorities, Congress’s priorities, as well as the agency’s priorities, and that means it is a slow process,” says Schuman. “It can take a long time for the necessary money to flow to where it’s needed. And decisions are made based on needs—as filtered through a political lens.”


No one will be surprised to learn that the U.S. government is a vortex of waste and mismanagement, but there is an office devoted to finding the problems, and solving them.

“There is a little agency inside Congress called the Government Accountability Office,” says Schuman. “They’re funded around $750 million a year, and for every dollar spent on them, they save the taxpayer around 150 bucks.” For over a hundred years, the GAO has audited and investigated government programs and agencies and issued reports on problems found and how they might be rectified. In the last decade alone, the GAO has saved the taxpayer a half trillion dollars.

Inspectors general, meanwhile, are like little GAOs that are inside federal agencies. A 2020 report found that that IGs return about $22 on the dollar.

Note that these are not federal law enforcement agents, and when they find waste and mismanagement, it is still up to agencies to self-reform, or Congress to put language in appropriations reports and authorization bills correcting the problems.


There is one place where the GAO has virtually no power at all, says Kel McClanahan, the executive director of National Security Counselors, a sunlight organization that monitors national security issues. That, he says, is the Intelligence Community (IC).

“When the GAO comes knocking at an intelligence agency, the agency can and does turn them away, claiming that they are not subject to audits,” says McClanahan.

Though the IC has often resisted GAO efforts, the latest exemption claims goes back to 1988. That year, the GAO attempted to conduct an investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency “[i]n order to evaluate whether ‘information about illegal activities by high level officials of other nations may not be adequately considered in U.S. foreign policy decisions.’”

The DOJ Office of Legal Counsel pushed back on Congress and the GAO, writing that “the subject of the GAO investigation is the Executive’s discharge of its constitutional foreign policy responsibilities, not its statutory responsibilities. The subject is thus not ‘a program or activity the Government carries out under existing law,’ and it is beyond GAO’s authority.”

INTELLIGENCE interpretation

When Congressional watchdogs have no teeth—when, indeed, they aren’t even allowed in the front door—things go amiss. Because the IC is shaped by the weirdness of government secrecy, on a simply bureaucratic level, when things go wrong, they often remain shrouded in mystery.

For example, in the National Defense Authorization Act just passed, Congress directs the Director of National Intelligence to use some of its budget to study security clearance reciprocity among the various offices of the government, including analytics and common reasons that reciprocity is not granted.

Reciprocity saves time and money in a part of the federal government that desperately needs more—and more qualified—people. The CIA, however, specifically refuses to acknowledge the security clearance investigations of any other agency.

“I have never seen the CIA grant reciprocity to literally anyone,” says McClanahan. “You could have a person who works at NSA, who got fully investigated for a clearance in November of 2022, including a full scope polygraph. The person could have been read into every program the NSA was doing with the CIA by the president himself. If that person then applied to work at the CIA, the CIA would start from scratch. They don’t do reciprocity, period, full stop.”

All this becomes a really big problem because other agencies do grant reciprocity—including “negative reciprocity.” If someone was denied a clearance by another agency, the other agencies and the Defense Department would reciprocate the denial. Apply to the CIA first, and get denied a clearance—and your national security career might be over before it even started.

But it gets worse than that.


Let’s say you have been a Marine Corps counterintelligence specialist for years, with accolades. You hold a Top Secret security clearance as part of your job. Things are great for you, God, and country. Now suppose you want a change of scenery and apply to work at the CIA.

If the CIA does a background investigation, and denies you a security clearance over despite your current clearance eligibility (remember, you already hold a Top Secret clearance and are a vital, positive national asset), the Marine Corps may grant reciprocity for the denial.

This isn’t a hypothetical, says McClanahan, but rather, is based on one of his actual cases. “The CIA shouldn’t have even done the investigation. It only happened because they don’t grant reciprocity. And the Marine Corps says, ‘We don’t care. We do reciprocity, and we have to reciprocally recognize their determination that you do not deserve security clearance.’”

It gets even weirder. The executive order governing clearance appeals only guarantees an appeal, not every appeal. “You only get one appeal,” McClanahan says. “You can appeal the CIA’s determination to the CIA, but you cannot appeal the determination to revoke your active security clearance based on what the CIA did.”


“Require intelligence agencies to comply with GAO investigations,” says McClanahan. “You want Congress to see how bad it is inside an agency. You want to make the agency have to answer your questions. It is admittedly an incremental step, but by God, it is a critical step.”

Navigating a government bureaucracy can feel discouraging—like the system is irredeemably broken. To this, Schuman offers some perspective, and hope.

“We live in a democracy,” he says, “which means you’re using the wisdom of the crowds. Wisdom of the crowds is not great, but it’s not that bad. You’re not going to get the best result, but you’re not going to get a really terrible result, as compared to autocracies like China, Russia, and elsewhere.”

Autocracies operate very efficiently, he says. One person, or a handful of people, make a decision, and everybody salutes. “If you want build a high speed rail system, that’s a great way to do it. ‘You have land rights? Who cares—we’re gonna build it regardless.’ It’s a very harsh system with bad feedback mechanisms, and a poor decision-making process where people’s interests are not taken into account. So what you end up with is a brutal system that breaks.”

Democracies, though, don’t always make the best decisions and they waste a lot of money, but they are fairly durable and can take a lot of hits. “They tend to be more robust. They’re reactive to problems instead of proactive, but once they realize the problem—like putting money toward developing an antivirus for a pandemic—we’re good at that stuff. Our competitors, the autocracies, are not. That’s the good news. The good news is it could be worse.”


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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at