DoD Cost-Cutting Caucus Could Bolster Military

Originally published in Defense News

U.S. President George W. Bush proposed increasing the Pentagon budget by $28 billion as part of a long-term plan to boost defense spending.

The irony is that by cutting wasteful weapons and making other modest reforms, the Pentagon could save at least double that amount, freeing up tens of billions of tax dollars for other national priorities.

Indeed, there’s little dispute in Washington that the Pentagon wastes tens of billions of dollars. It’s an open secret among Democrats and Republicans. Yet, when budget time comes around, there’s barely a peep heard from either party about wasteful Pentagon spending. And then the defense budget usually sails through Congress with, at best, a billion-dollar nip or two around the edges.

This year, thanks to the Iraq war, Katrina and other cost increases, the federal budget crunch has become a budget vice, and lawmakers are looking for solutions.

So there’s every reason for members of Congress to finally cast off their fear of being labeled “weak on defense” and to scrutinize the Pentagon budget for waste and inefficiencies.

Here’s a sample of what they will find:

*Cold War weapons. Weapons like the F-22 fighter jet and Virginia-class submarine were designed to counter threats from a bygone era. Yet these Cold War arms are being built anyway, chewing up tens of billions of taxpayer dollars annually.

*Missile defense. The administration wants to spend more than $10 billion on constructing a defense against incoming nuclear missiles, even though there’s no evidence it will actually work, and terrorists are more likely to smuggle nukes into America by ship or over land.

*Nuclear bombs. America could save billions by reducing its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads, more than enough to maintain nuclear deterrence.

And there’s much more money going down the drain at the Pentagon, totaling about $60 billion. While $60 billion is not going to solve the budget woes in Washington, saving it certainly would help.

Finding the Nerve

The problem is, how to get Congress and the president to find the backbone to cut wasteful defense spending? As a start, how about forming a congressional “Pentagon Savings” caucus, anchored by fiscal conservatives? The ad-hoc caucus could produce a report highlighting the most egregious Pentagon waste and calling on fellow members of Congress to debate it.

Plenty of Domestic Targets

Assembling such a bipartisan group might not be as difficult as cynics may initially believe. After all, with more than 140 domestic programs on the chopping block, Congress is set to have a major battle over what to cut, so there’s more incentive than ever to take a look at the money potentially available at the Pentagon.

But more importantly, there are already some prominent members of Congress who’ve spoken up recently about budget issues at the Pentagon, and might emerge as leaders of a Pentagon Savings caucus.

In the Senate, John McCain, R-Ariz., has long attacked Pentagon pork-barrel projects, and late last year Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, surprised Washington insiders by saying he will even comb through the Pentagon budget for savings.

In the House, Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, has actually proposed a small defense cut, and Ron Paul, R-Texas, also may oppose wasteful spending.

Agreement on Waste

In private, most every member of Congress — and even the senior officials over at the Pentagon — would agree that there are tens of billions of dollars worth of waste in the military budget. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself has argued that about 5 percent of the defense budget is wasted.

One of the first tasks of this Pentagon Savings Caucus would be to issue a strong statement that members of Congress who favor Pentagon cuts are not weak on defense. In fact, they are making our country stronger.

But this will never happen unless leaders emerge who understand that the best way to counter the weak-on-defense label is to go on the offensive, and show just how much money is being wasted at the Pentagon and what our great nation could do with it.

Lawrence Korb isa senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a member of the military advisory committee of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. He is a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow