Why Pentagon bloat will kill real deficit cutting

Congress has taken a hostage that no one wants to shoot

Published September 16, 2011 12:01PM (EDT)

Leon Panetta and Robert Gates
Leon Panetta and Robert Gates

Touted as the "supercommittee" by pundits, the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee -- created by the Aug. 2 debt deal between President Barack Obama and the congressional Republicans -- has turned out to be not so super. The real super-committees of Congress, the appropriations committees, are reasserting their control, and they are doing it with the defense budget, keeping it quite flush with money and unraveling a second round of debt reduction.

Painful as it is to remember, the August debt deal -- which got the country past the crisis provoked by the Republicans' refusal to allow an increase in the debt ceiling -- requires the supercommittee to find at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years. If the 12 congressional Republicans and Democrats on the committee fail to agree on those cuts, automatic reductions are supposed to take place, including $492 billion in the defense budget and over $400 billion elsewhere, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Politically, the idea was to apply pressure by threatening the unthinkable, i.e., "We'll shoot the hostage." Either the supercommittee will cut a deal, or the defense budget gets whacked.

It is not going to happen that way.

First, the supercommittee is bound to fail; it will reach no meaningful budget agreement.

Second, when the committee fails, the defense cuts envisioned by the supposedly automatic trigger mechanism will not occur. That will be for the simple reason that almost no one wants that to happen. While they are quite mistaken about the consequences, almost everyone on Capitol Hill (and in the Pentagon) thinks that those defense reductions will be "devastating," "disastrous," "doomsday" and any other apocalyptic term you can think of.

In short, the debt deal took a hostage that no one wants to shoot.

In the 31 years I worked on Capitol Hill, I came to know several others with as much, or more, experience as I in understanding how the place operates. Not one of the four Hill veterans (with a collective 150 years of House-Senate experience) with whom I have spoken believes that the supercommittee is headed for anything but failure. The debt deal and the committee were designed only to kick the can down the road to get us past last summer's crisis -- with the inevitable result of provoking other crises.

The meetings held thus far by the supercommittee have made obvious its inevitable breakdown. At a hearing this week with the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf (who conducted himself with professionalism and grace), the congressional members demonstrated why the vast majority of Americans hold them in contempt.

Consisting mostly of second-stringers on budget issues and leadership errand boys (and girl) from their party caucuses, that bunch will find a $1.2 trillion budget solution sometime after pigs fly and shrimps whistle.

The real budget action on Capitol Hill is occurring behind closed doors. The defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee met on Tuesday, in private, to decide on the 2012 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill. It funds most, but not all, of the Pentagon's budget. The subcommittee took cognizance of the initial mandatory cuts required by the debt deal, but not any parts that had to do with the supercommittee and the automatic cuts.

The Aug. 2 deal imposed -- without any further palaver required -- an initial phase of reductions on appropriations for the next 10 years totaling over $900 billion. While the precise budget obligation on the Pentagon in this first phase has not been entirely clear, most are now interpreting it to mean a $350 billion reduction. That means that the Pentagon budget would be effectively frozen at its current, fiscal year 2011 level -- precisely the level set by the Appropriations Committee's bill.

It safely can be predicted this will be the level of Pentagon spending the entire Congress endorses for 2012, after some theatrical grumbling by some Republicans about the bill's spending being $26 billion less than President Obama's now meaningless budget request from last February.

Even at the 2011 level, the bill is extremely generous. The amount -- about $529 billion after separate military construction and some other pieces are added -- will be almost as much "base" spending as the Pentagon has seen in any single year for decades.

If you add the separate funding for the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere ($118 billion), the amount is quite close to the Pentagon's highest level since the end of World War II -- and it is well above previous secondary peaks attained in the Korean and Vietnamese Wars and Ronald Reagan's fleeting zenith in 1985.

That "frozen" 2011 level will be more than twice the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Somalia. It will be more than $80 billion more than we spent, on average, during the Cold War when we faced a threatening and heavily armed Soviet Union and a hostile, dogmatically communist China. In the absence of these two huge threats, we are now being told we need to spend more.

While the new DOD appropriations bill was described by its architect, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as "not an easy allocation to meet," it is actually a defense budget quite flush with money.

The bill includes several gimmicks to permit higher spending than is apparent. There is the clumsy ploy of moving $6.5 billion out of the capped part of the Pentagon budget that the debt deal limited and adding the money back into the separate (uncapped) funding for the war in Afghanistan. (This, of course, permitted the "base" bill to contain $6.5 billion more than otherwise.)

Also, as the details trickle out next week, we will find the usual ruses, including cuts for "revised economic assumptions," "unobligated balances" and other phony games to pretend the committee is reducing money (rather than deferring it) and making good government decisions (rather than taking capricious cuts in military readiness while protecting procurement -- and contractors). (For more on these tricks, see here.)

The current defense bill is not a tough-minded but moderate action to impose restraint on the Pentagon; it is an effort to protect Pentagon spending as much as possible. With Robert Gates taking the lead and Leon Panetta bobble-heading in agreement, the Pentagon has resolved itself to that first phase of $350 billion in cuts over 10 years. They are not happy about it, but they will live with it in order to fend off further reductions. The Senate Appropriations Committee leadership is in deep sympathy with that sentiment.

Filled with bunkum to make it seem as if it's cutting at least moderately but is actually rescuing the unaffordable, underperforming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee is a rear-guard budget protection action.

The gambit will be successful. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., is quoted almost every day about the cataclysm that will occur if the defense budget is cut at all. This kind of hysteria makes the assertions of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., almost seem to be the middle ground: He threatened to quit the supercommittee if the Pentagon cuts go beyond the initial $350 billion. The response from Democrats and even Republicans who have previously favored meaningful Pentagon cuts has sealed the deal: They have been completely silent.

All that remains to be done is to let the supercommittee proceed on its clear path to failure. That will trigger the dreaded automatic cuts, but only nominally. As designed, those cuts would not occur until 2013. The big defense spender types will have all of 2012 to trash any opponents who dare to speak in favor of allowing them. They will use their traditional slander that to be against bloat in the defense budget is to be "anti-defense." It has always worked in the past, especially with Democrats who want to posture themselves as moderate, such as candidate Obama.

The debt deal will be rewritten. The defense budget will be "saved," and the next budget crisis will be made both inevitable and worse. We have a lot more dysfunction in Congress and the White House yet to observe.

Winslow T. Wheeler worked on Capitol Hill for 31 years; he handled national security issues for both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the Government Accountability Office. He is the editor of the new anthology "The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It," available online here

By Winslow T. Wheeler

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