Hyper-Partisanship in Defense Budget Debate Playing in Pentagon’s Favor
The deficit-busting congressional panel known as the Super Committee has only been in place for a few days and already it is hopelessly divided over cuts to the defense budget.
The12-member group of six Democratic and six Republican lawmakers is beginning to split into one faction (of mostly Democrats) that views cuts to military spending as a necessary sacrifice in order to put the nation’s fiscal house in order, and another (of mostly Republicans) that under no circumstances will support reductions to the defense budget and wants all cuts to come from social programs.
The fault line that is being drawn is a product not just of Washington politics-as-usual but also the result of a calculated move by Defense Department leaders to delay a much-anticipated strategic review of military missions.
By arguing that no cuts should be made until the Pentagon delivers a comprehensive strategy, GOP defense hawks in Congress are tapping into Democrats’ fears that if they support military budget cuts, they will be smeared as weak on national defense.
The polarization of the military-spending debate was on display last week as members of the House and Senate defense committees ventilated their talking points.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., even threatened to quit the Super Committee just hours after the group’s first meeting. Speaking at a conference on Capitol Hill Sept. 8, Kyl said he would drop out before he would agree to any cuts to defense spending. “Defense budgets should be based on needs, not on artificial percentages for deficit reduction,” he said.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said that any cuts beyond the nearly $500 billion mandated by the Budget Control Act (passed in August as part of the debt ceiling agreement) would be “unacceptable.” Graham said lawmakers are willing to go along with “sensible reforms” such as eliminating waste in weapon procurement programs and even reducing heath care benefits for retirees. But any attempt to make across-the-board cuts to defense will be a deal-breaker, because it would send a message to the world that the United States views national defense as a “secondary concern” that ranks below social programs, Graham said.
Under the rules that govern the Super Committee, if the panel fails to agree to a comprehensive plan of spending cuts and revenues that reduces the national debt by $1.2 trillion, there will be across-the-board budget reductions, and half would come from defense. These automatic “sequester” cuts would be implemented beginning in 2013.
Kyl said that all $1.5 trillion in savings should come from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “There is enough slop in the system to find $1.5 trillion in savings,” he said.
Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, joined the faction of lawmakers who are standing firm against any defense cuts until the Pentagon’s strategy is unveiled. The HASC hosted a hearing Sept. 8 where three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Gen. Peter Pace, Gen. Richard Myers and Adm. Ed Giambastiani — contended that it would be rash to cut Pentagon spending in the absence of a comprehensive review of military responsibilities. “They said we have to start developing a strategy before we start basing military cuts on numbers,” West said.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, voiced frustration at the hearing about the “systemic budget dilemma” that the nation faces. He echoed the view of other Democrats who are conflicted about being pro-defense but also looking for the Pentagon to take its share of the deficit-reduction burden. “Revenues and expenditures are substantially misaligned,” Smith said. “We don’t collect enough revenue to cover our expenditures.” The Pentagon, which has seen its budget soar in real terms by 40 percent since 9/11, should not be spared, he said. By the same token, if defense spending is reduced, the Defense Department should downsize its portfolio of responsibilities, he said. “We on this committee like to say that strategy should not be driven by arbitrary budget numbers, but by the same token not considering the level of available resources when developing a strategy is irresponsible and leads inevitably to asking our military to undertake jobs for which we do not [provide] resources.”
The job of the debt-reduction panel obviously would be far easier if the Pentagon provided its own analysis of what functions or programs might be expendable. But that is unlikely to happen at least until next year, when the president submits the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request.
The Pentagon’s delay tactics are politically astute but are detrimental to the larger U.S. goals of fixing its finances, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“Given the uncertainty, the Defense Department should come up with a set of options” before the Super Committee’s November deadline to propose budget cuts, he said at a CSBA news conference. But he sees why the Defense Department is reluctant to come up with those options and show them to Congress. “When you start doing that, you admit there’s some things you would cut and it makes it more likely that those cuts will occur,” Harrison said.
On the other hand, the Pentagon should not be blamed for refusing to produce a strategy without knowing how much money it will have to work with, contended Jim Thomas, vice president of CSBA. He described it as chicken-or-egg problem. “I’m sympathetic to both sides,” he said. “You want to make strategically sound choices. But you want to know your level of resources, and the level of resources is in such flux now,” he added. There is potentially a half-trillion dollar delta between the high- and the low end of the possible cuts to defense over the next decade.
“It’s difficult to show your strategy if you don’t know your resources,” said CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich.
Other defense experts have called for the Super Committee to take bold action in downsizing military spending, considering the enormous growth the Pentagon’s budget has seen in the past decade.
The fear mongering about defense cuts of a trillion dollars over the next decade being detrimental to national security is nonsense, said Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University. “For all the horror stories, cancelled programs, wasted dollars, the U.S. military is globally dominant and globally capable,” Adams wrote in a blog post. The Super Committee, which he believes is “designed to fail” should take a serious look at defense and “recommend a more stern version of discipline than $350 billion in fewer resources than the Pentagon currently projects,” Adams said. “Something like 15 percent fewer resources than those planned over the next decade would be a useful target. … This would be more gradual than any previous defense build-down and it would not produce fiscal stability solely on the backs of the military services.”
Harvey M. Sapolsky, professor of national security studies at MIT, contends that the intransigence of the Tea Party Republicans during the debt ceiling negotiations may have saved the defense budget from deep cuts that had seemed almost certain a month earlier. Shifting the decision making to the Super Committee is a "victory for those who favor a large U.S. defense budget. "Expectations a month ago were that defense would likely be the biggest loser of the U.S. debt crisis. Now, it is likely just another victim," Sapolsky said.
If the Super Committee decides to make any defense cuts, it would face some difficult decisions, CSBA’s Harrison said.
The defense budget indeed has soared since 2001, from $400 billion to about $700 billion in today’s dollars. But the traditional ways of downsizing the military — eliminating people and hardware — are complicated by the fact that the overall size of the military has not changed substantially. It is about the same or smaller than in 2001. The number of overseas bases is 50 percent smaller, and there are fewer aircraft and ships in the inventory than there were in 2001, Harrison said.
The post-Korean War defense drawdown saw a 53 percent drop in military spending, he said. Post Vietnam War, it was 26 percent, and 34 percent after the Cold War.
This coming down cycle — which Harrison estimated will see a 31 percent reduction over the next decade — will be different because the buildup didn’t include huge increases in personnel and equipment. “How do we reduce the budget after a buildup that was not a buildup in the conventional sense?” Harrison asked. Most likely, the cutbacks will comes from fewer overseas deployments and from weapons procurement programs, he said. “It is simply not realistic to have the Defense Department continue to do everything,” he said. “It will have to make choices about where we plan to compete in the future. … Responsible cuts should be targeted at low priority missions and not spread out.”
Here’s a thought for the Super Committee to ponder: Before 9/11, the Congressional Budget Office projected a $5.6 trillion surplus for the coming decade. What the United States ended up with is a $6.1 trillion deficit. In just a decade, a $12 trillion swing.