Defense Spending Bait and Switch

Congress Must End Unwanted Programs

Congress says it supports budget cuts to unnecessary programs, but needs to act on it, write Lawrence Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Defense Department's budget earlier this year. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Defense Department's budget earlier this year. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A strange anomaly was seen in Washington earlier this month: the administration and lawmakers from both parties began to publicly debate ways to responsibly reduce the projected growth in the baseline defense budget for the first time since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphasized in a pair of speeches earlier this month that there are dire consequences of failing to restrain growth in the military’s health care and personnel budgets, allowing cost inefficiencies to continue in the department’s redundant bureaucracy, and continuing to order and maintain weapons programs built to confront threats from a bygone era.

And high-ranking economic officials and congressional leaders from both parties held a fiscal summit last month at the Peterson Foundation, which concluded that, “everything is on the table.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) observed during the summit that “there are a lot of savings you can get in defense,” and “there’s a lot of waste over there, for sure.”

But what a difference a month makes. The House Armed Services committee approved the fiscal year 2011 Defense Authorization Bill last Friday by a vote of 59-0. The bill authorizes $567 billion in funding for the Department of Defense and national security-related funding for the Department of Energy. This amount is slightly more than the administration requested and significantly more than the House authorized a year ago.

The HASC bill includes a litany of pet programs that were not requested by the administration or the Defense Department, as well as funding to increase the buys for systems that DOD is already purchasing at efficient rates. In some instances, HASC included programs that DOD specifically targeted for termination.

The HASC bill includes funding for the development of the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example, which the military has repeatedly stated it does not need or want and cannot afford. The markup also orders the Pentagon to budget for the engine in 2012. Secretary Gates has advised the president to veto any bill that includes funding for the second engine.

The HASC bill also includes $65 billion for Navy and Marine Corps procurement despite Secretary Gates’s recent speech before the Navy League calling on the service to reexamine its force posture in the current operating environment. As Gates noted, the United States will maintain 11 carrier strike groups through 2040 when no other country has more than one. The $65 billion includes $5.1 billion to fund two Virginia class submarines—the first time the committee has ever authorized two of these boats in one year. And the committee’s FY 2011 authorization includes $1.7 billion in advance funding toward the purchase of two more Virginia class hulls in FY 2012. Including funding for the advanced purchase of these two submarines creates a strong incentive for lawmakers to allow the program to proceed in next year’s budget, which essentially ensures that the same misguided spending evident in this year’s markup will continue in FY 2012.

The list goes on. The HASC bill includes $361 million over what the administration requested for funding for ballistic missile defense despite the fact that the Pentagon already increased the budget by over $300 million from a year ago. The increased funding, which then-Senator Obama campaigned against, would fund missile defense at George W. Bush administration-levels if approved by the House and the Senate. HASC also revived funding for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, an unnecessary and deeply flawed amphibious vehicle that is vulnerable to the types of improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Additional funding was also added for eight F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters over the administration’s request as well as over $590 million in unfunded requests for tactical vehicles, operational enhancements, and force protection and equipment testing. The HASC bill also reflexively increases military pay by more than the administration requested despite the fact that military pay already equals or exceeds the average salaries of civilian workers with comparable education backgrounds.

The long list of unnecessary platforms that were cut by the Defense Department only to be resurrected by Congress is emblematic of the enormous challenge the administration faces in paring down the defense budget. The HASC authorization bill is a step in the wrong direction considering the pressing need to contain ever-increasing defense budgets as part of an overall strategy aimed at reducing the burgeoning federal deficit.

The now yearly struggle between the Defense Department and Congress over funding for unnecessary and unwanted, but politically advantageous programs must end. Both sides of the aisle agree that current trends in defense spending cannot continue, but rhetoric is not enough. Members of Congress must replace platitudes with action. Eliminating the additional funding that the HASC inserted into its markup of the Defense Authorization Bill is not the whole solution, but it’s a good place to start.

Congress should give full consideration to the Enhanced Rescission Proposal that the Obama administration sent to Capitol Hill for consideration earlier this week. The proposal, if enacted, would enable the White House to eliminate specific items it deems unnecessary or wasteful after signing a bill into law. Congress would then have 25 congressional business days to approve the president’s rescissions, which could not be amended. The proposal, while less powerful than the line item veto that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998, would provide the executive branch with an important tool to check the irresponsible tendency of some in Congress to support unneeded weapons programs—among other unnecessary spending initiatives.

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