November 28, 2014

Deficit Concerns, Other Priorities Point Toward Tighter Pentagon Budgets

If President Obama was looking for Congress to rubber-stamp his request for additional “emergency” funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, he was sorely disappointed. He asked for the money last February but a wary Congress didn’t approve the funding until just last week, and only after considerable debate over the war effort and U.S. spending priorities.

Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington state, offered a striking example of the trade-offs that are involved in heavy spending abroad at a time when communities around the country are struggling financially:  A police department in his district could lose as many as 23 jobs.

“We can’t pay for them – our first line of security in our neighborhood – but today we would be voting for something on the order of several years of about $4 billion to train police officers in Kabul,” Inslee said. Another notable dissent came from House Appropriations Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin, who expressed concern about the high cost of the war and doubts about the Afghan government.

The legislation provides for $59 billion in additional spending this year, with $33.5 billion going to the Department of Defense and the rest to a variety of other programs ranging from disaster assistance in Haiti to law enforcement training in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Fifty-nine billion is a lot of money, particularly at a time of economic difficulties at home and growing concern about federal deficits. In all, 102 members of the President’s own party voted against the bill in the House – more than three times the number who opposed additional defense spending legislation last year.

Yet even as the President was signing the legislation last week, a new report was calling for a “substantial and immediate” increase in Pentagon funding to deal with what it called a “significant and growing gap” between the U.S. military and the challenges it faces.

The report came from an independent panel created by Congress to analyze the Quadrennial Defense Review, an assessment by the Pentagon of its forces and resources. The bipartisan panel includes people who have held diplomatic and military positions in previous administrations.

The military force structure, the panel argues, “needs to be increased in a number of areas . . . The (Defense) Department can achieve cost savings on acquisition and overhead, but substantial additional resources will be required to modernize the force.”

This call seems at odds with the views of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has warned the Pentagon that reforms there are critical simply to retain the current force structure. He points out that the Pentagon’s basic budget has nearly doubled in the last decade, not including additional appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny,” Gates said in a speech in May. “The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.”

The Concord Coalition believes that Gates is on the right track. In the short-term, the Pentagon must work hard to find savings and economies where they are possible. And in the longer term, military spending will have to be on the table along with everything else as the country figures out how to bring down massive budget deficits.

The controversy over engines for F-35 fighter jets illustrates the reluctance of some members of Congress to cut back on the extravagance of the past. They want two different companies making engines for the F-35. Gates and the White House strongly oppose using a second company to make a second engine as wasteful. But last week the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee forged ahead, approving a draft measure allocating $450 million for the second engine.

Supporters of the second engine argued in a congressional hearing Thursday that the review panel’s new report supported their case. The chairmen of the panel, however, declined to take a position on the controversy.

While the U.S. faces many security challenges, it is helpful to remember that – as both Gates and the independent review panel agree – the money the United States already devotes to defense could often be spent more wisely by the military.

This potential for cost savings and efficiency improvements has been repeatedly underscored by the Government Accountability Office. Last week, for example, the GAO issued a report pointing to an array of accounting and other basic problems in the management of military equipment. There are so many problems, in fact, that the GAO report groups them into seven major categories. The Department of Defense is working to correct some weaknesses but, according to the GAO, still has a long way to go.

Political incumbents as well as challengers this year are promising greater government efficiency and more responsible fiscal policies in the years ahead. As Concord has argued in the past, military spending should not be exempt from such efforts.