Americans have heard it all before. The $500 hammers and $900 toilet seats bought by the U.S. military made headlines years ago. They made "Pentagon waste" as much a cliche as "Florida sunshine" or "April showers."

Still, the recent news that auditors found military purchasers paying $76 for a 57 cent aircraft screw and $714 for a $47 electrical bell was alarming. In this age of downsizing and cost consciousness, the Pentagon was supposed to have gotten costs under control. Apparently, turning the giant military ship of state around may be more difficult than expected.But then, no one should be surprised. This is the same military that was found two years ago to be carrying on multimillion-dollar building projects at various bases that either had closed or were soon to be closed.

Perhaps an organization this large should be expected to have problems, but with all the negative publicity in recent years, Pentagon officials ought to have a heightened sensitivity to excess.

Not that they don't have explanations. Plenty of those were offered this week. One audit looked at a contract with Boeing. Officials said the aircraft manufacturer delivers spare parts in small quantities as the military needs them. The delivery costs are included in the price of the parts, but the military saves money by not having to store huge inventories on its own.

Fine, but would this method save enough to cover the difference between 57 cents and $76 for one small screw? The explanations sound lame, as do the claims that the prices have nothing to do with contractor greed and everything to do with poor performance by the Defense Logistics Agency. Just because the federal budget is beginning to emerge from decades of deficit spending doesn't mean the American people shouldn't be outraged by abuses of tax dollars.

But there are other reasons to be outraged. The Pentagon has been cutting back on the number of its auditors. Abuses may be much more difficult to uncover in the future. Officials say the number of fraud referrals on defense purchasing contracts has fallen by 47 percent over the last three years.

The military, then, may have found the perfect way to deflect criticism. Congress ought to demand that this trend be reversed. Otherwise, no news about Pentagon waste in coming years may be bad news indeed.