Taking Aim at the Pentagon Budget
But although polls show that Americans aren’t enthused about spending more money on the military, that doesn’t instantly translate into a broad coalition that can put pressure on Congress and the White House. “There’s certainly momentum on the grassroots side,” says Paul Kawika Martin, political and communications director of Peace Action. “But I haven’t seen the coalition yet that can make inroads on this. For instance, a lot of unions support many of these weapons systems as job creators. We need to get unions on board, and we’re not there yet.”
If Democrats want to rally unions—and military-industry workers in particular—to support cuts, they’d do well to propose defense conversion plans, says Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies, who co-wrote a report last year called “The Green Dividend.” In it, she suggests steering Defense Department money into green technology, especially in the energy field. In the 1990s, Pemberton points out, more than 2.5 million jobs were lost as the military was downsized after the cold war, but the vast bulk of the savings was channeled into deficit reduction, not reinvestment.
The last time military spending dropped significantly was during that period, from 1989 through 1998. According to the Bipartisan Policy report, “national defense spending fell 28 percent in constant dollars, the active duty force shrank by more than 700,000, the force structure was consolidated, the defense civilian workforce dropped by over 300,000, and procurement budgets fell in excess of 50 percent.”
Could such a reduction happen now? William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and the author of a book about Lockheed Martin, Prophets of War, said there’s no reason the Iron Triangle can’t be defeated now, just as it was in the 1990s. “The military-industrial complex is not all-powerful,” he says. “There’s a sense that they always get what they want. But they don’t win every battle.” Hartung points out that although the Obama administration hasn’t yet cut deeply into the Pentagon’s wallet, it has already cut, canceled or delayed a number of expensive, unneeded or redundant weapons systems like the F-22 fighter and the Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, along with the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “It’s kind of a salvage operation, trying to hold off real cuts,” says Hartung, who believes pressure to cut military spending will begin to be felt in the fall.
If a reduction does happen, it won’t come all at once. “Defense is like a big aircraft carrier, and you can’t turn it around right away,” says Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, himself a former Pentagon official. Korb says few if any cuts will come before the 2015 budget cycle. The fight will have to start right away, but it will take a while. “If you start now, you can take out $100 billion a year by 2015. That’s realistic.” Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, which has produced its own detailed plan for restraining spending, agrees. “Defense budgets rarely get cut in presidential election years, and I don’t expect much in 2012 or 2013,” he says. Beyond that, however, he anticipates reductions. According to Knight, even within the armed services there’s a creeping awareness that the gravy train is slowing down, and they’re coming to realize that counterinsurgency wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan are far too costly to wage in the future. “There’s a growing sense in the military that if we continue to fight these kinds of wars, there won’t be money available for what they want in terms of hardware,” he says. “So I think the military is going to be ready to bargain on reducing their end strength in order to preserve modernization. There are lots of people in the military who are very critical of the counterinsurgency doctrine.”
So far there have been rumblings in Congress about cutting the military, but little to show for it. During the long-running effort by House Republicans to force big cuts in so-called “nondefense discretionary spending”—that one-sixth of the budget that doesn’t include the military, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or interest on the debt—there were scattered votes to cut the military, too. All but one failed. The one that passed, canceling production of an alternate engine for the F-35, was something of an exception. “In that case, the president, the defense secretary and the secretary of the Air Force were against it, and you had two companies, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, fighting over it, so you could cancel out the corporate lobbying,” says Peace Action’s Martin.
Still, in analyzing the series of votes to cut bits and pieces of the Pentagon’s cash in February and March, Martin says it is apparent that there is a healthy contingent of three dozen GOP House members and up to 120 Democrats who are consistently voting against the military. Although it’s too early to say if it’s a trend, and though the total from both parties in the House is far short of the 218 needed to enact legislation, it is a signal that for the first time since the late 1990s there’s potential on Capitol Hill for real pushback against the Pentagon. “The votes so far show a change in direction,” says Laura Peterson, senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We’re going around, talking to members, meeting with staffers. I will optimistically predict that more and more people will come out later this year when these appropriations bills start being taken up.”
Indeed, as the uprising in Wisconsin showed, it’s possible that over the next few months the political dynamic will shift unpredictably against the military in the debate over the 2012 appropriations, especially if there’s resistance by Democrats to a GOP campaign to force massive budget cuts.
As the legislative calendar moves forward, there will be chances to lay down markers. The first is the overall budget resolution, which could contain language challenging Gates’s request for $671 billion, perhaps even proposing a five-year freeze in military spending at 2010, or even 2008, levels. The second will be enactment of a law increasing the debt ceiling, which might include significant reductions in military outlays. David Berteau, a senior adviser at the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies who served at the Pentagon under four defense secretaries, suggested at a recent forum on Capitol Hill that because Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling by $3 trillion by 2012, members of Congress might do it in four stages, every six months, and that in each one they could require $50 billion in military cuts, spread out over five or ten years. Chopping it up into small increments like that would be a lot easier than doing it all at once, he said. “At DoD, $50 billion isn’t even real money.”
Even if cuts are made, Congress is unlikely to propose a sweeping new approach to the Pentagon’s mission. Unlike, say, the plans put forward by the Frank/Paul task force and the Cato Institute, which ask why we need such a large military budget, Congress is apt to tackle it piecemeal. “Conceptualizing on Capitol Hill is an oxymoron. There is nobody on Capitol Hill doing that,” says Adams. “That’s why [cuts] will be incremental, salami-sliced. They’ll be hunting around for targets of opportunity, looking to stretch out this or that weapons system.”
Adams compares it to trench warfare. “Each year is a trench, and slowly the secretary and the armed services back up, back up, back up, and each year they take a little less.” The first skirmishes were in 2009, and they’ve gathered momentum ever since, he says, even though they haven’t translated yet into tangible reductions. Referring to the string of failed amendments to reduce outlays during the votes on “continuing resolutions” to avert a government shutdown in March, Adams says, “The thing that’s interesting in 2011 isn’t that slew of amendments on defense but that House Republicans’ first instinct was to support a continuing resolution freezing spending at 2010 levels.”
It’s unfortunate that Congressional Democrats (aside from Frank’s task force) have shied away from rethinking defense. Failure to do so could leave the party stuck in the deficit-reduction box, in which cuts in Pentagon spending will have to be matched or exceeded by cuts in nonmilitary programs, including education, the environment, healthcare and entitlements. A comprehensive approach by Democratic leaders could mobilize the public’s unhappiness with military spending.
Naturally, it’s foolish to underestimate the power of the Iron Triangle. To make sure the thirteen Republican freshmen on the House Armed Services Committee didn’t get any ideas about wielding Tea Party budget axes against the Pentagon, the committee’s chair, Buck McKeon, organized a lucrative fundraiser for what he called the “Lucky 13,” inviting them to meet check-bearing lobbyists from a range of military contractors.
And even programs like Tricare are proving exceedingly difficult to rein in. For several years, Secretary Gates has been trying to raise premiums for it. Tricare absorbs about one-tenth of all Pentagon spending, and its costs have skyrocketed, from $19 billion ten years ago to $53 billion today. Despite repeated efforts, however, Gates has failed. John Spratt, a retired Democrat who represented South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District from 1983 through 2010, tells the story of a town hall meeting back home. “In the back of the room, an old veteran stands up,” recalled Spratt. “And he says, ‘Congressman, have you ever crawled through the sands of North Africa and used a piece of piano wire to strangle a kraut?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, I have. And no one better get between me and my healthcare benefits.’”
Somewhere, possibly at a plant in South Carolina, the military-industrial complex is producing lots of piano wire.