House Republicans recently unveiled a proposal to cut $2.5 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade. Missing from the list: any cuts to the defense budget. Defense cuts are not popular in the House Armed Services Committee.
When it comes to deficit reduction, Republican Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita, the head of the House Armed Services Committee, says he’s all for cuts in federal spending. But hands off defense. McKeon says the Constitution says "we will provide for the common defense."
"We need to spend it well," he says. "We need to spend it wisely. Nobody’s talking about wasting money. We’re talking about doing a better job of how we spend. But you have to have enough."
But just how much is enough? The Pentagon has asked for $553 billion for next year. That’s on top of funding specifically allocated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McKeon insists now is the wrong time to talk about defense cuts. He says, "we’re on a war footing." And he’s not the only one. Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez says "the first thing we have to understand is that we’re a nation at war."
Sanchez also sits on the Armed Services Committee. She says support of the troops is "the most important thing." She says we "need to make sure they’re equipped, talented, trained and have the support that they need out there."
Where McKeon and Sanchez differ is how defense dollars should be spent once troops start coming home. McKeon says fix the broken stuff. "They’ve been fighting now for over 10 years. They’ve chewed up their equipment. We’re going to have to do resetting to get them back up to where they should be. And that’s going to take money."
Not so fast, says Loretta Sanchez. She says once the troops are home from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a good time to re-evaluate the military. What’s the right number of troops? Can unmanned planes do more of the work? Will new technology lead to savings? "And what we have found in Iraq and Afghanistan is the urban, unconventional, asymmetric fighting. So to think that somehow we’ve worn out our tanks and everything and so we’re going to make all these tanks to replace, no, no, no no! We really have to think: what will our army look like?"
Ben Friedman, a defense research fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, says he disagrees with both Sanchez and McKeon. "It’s true, as Chairman McKeon says, that the equipment is getting 'chewed up' in Iraq and Afghanistan. What he neglects to mention is that it’s also getting replaced."
Friedman says replacement costs are included in those supplemental war appropriations. He says military equipment is actually in better shape now than it’s been in years. But Friedman says he also disagrees with Congresswoman Sanchez that tomorrow’s army won’t need old fashioned fighting equipment like tanks. "What we found in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says, "is actually that heavy forces – armored vehicles, tanks, even – are pretty useful even in counter-insurgency campaigns because of IEDs and because of the sorts of weapons insurgents have."
Friedman says he’s not surprised that McKeon and Sanchez don’t want to cut defense spending. He says Armed Services is the “real estate committee” where members secure contracts and bases for their districts. And there’s a political dynamic to defense. Friedman says the Republican Party "for a very long time has been in the business of being more hawkish than the Democrats. And it hasn’t really mattered how hawkish the Democrats are, the Republicans just wanted to be more hawkish. So it didn’t matter how much we spent on defense, the Republicans just wanted to spend more."
Friedman says only 15 percent of congressional Republicans say they'd cut defense. Congressman John Campbell of Irvine is willing. He was part of the GOP team that outlined $2.5 trillion in cuts to the federal budget over the next 10 years. But Campbell admits, not a single cut was to the military.
Campbell says he thinks there's "a lot of waste in the defense budget – as much on a percentage basis as there is in any other budget." But he says defense cuts were not part of the deficit reduction plan "because I am still in a minority of Republicans who believe that position. There are more and more coming my way every day. And I think there’ll be more and they’ll get there. But that was not part of this package. If I were writing it myself, it would have been."
The Cato Institute’s Ben Friedman says Republican leaders in the House and Senate may be willing to compromise. "What they’re doing is signaling to the White House that as part of the deficit reduction deal, which they hope to strike sometime this year, they will trade their support for cuts in defense spending for the White House’s and the Democratic majority in the Senate’s willingness to go along with cuts in domestic spending programs and maybe entitlements."
The question is whether Democrats will accept cuts in Social Security and Medicare in exchange for reductions in defense.
Those battles get underway in this spring when the House takes up the defense authorization bill.