War Stories

House Democrats Back Down

The military budget is as bloated as ever.

In the shadow of their feisty challenge to President Bush’s policy on the war in Iraq, the House Democrats took a hard, cold look this week at his military budget—and backed away.

The House armed services committee, under Democratic control for the first time since George W. Bush took office, combed through the administration’s $504 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2008—and emerged Wednesday night with … a $504 billion defense budget. (Click here for more on the size of the defense budget.)

The panelists shuffled around a few items: a little less money for missile defense and futuristic Army systems; a little more money for soldiers’ pay, health care, and body armor.

But if anyone thought the Democrats might reassess the nation’s defense needs or the Pentagon’s way of doing business, think again. The Cold War may be long over, but America’s Cold War military machine is intact and well-oiled.

This $504 billion—measured in real terms (i.e., adjusting for inflation)—falls only a few billion short of the largest military budget in U.S. history, back in 1952, when America was embarking on its Cold War rearmament campaign and fighting a war in Korea.

One difference: The FY 1952 budget included the cost of fighting in Korea. The FY 2008 budget does not include the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Those costs are covered in the $95.5 billion emergency-spending bill, part of a supplement to the FY 2007 budget, over which the White House and Congress are currently quarreling.)

A half-trillion dollars exceeds the military budgets of all the world’s other nations combined. Does the United States really need to spend so much money—again, quite apart from what it’s spending on the wars—at a time when we face no heavily armed enemies and when the enemies we do have can’t be dealt with by traditional big-ticket weapons systems?

This is a question that no one on the House armed services committee—perhaps no more than a handful in the entire House or Senate—wants to engage.

In one sense, the reluctance is understandable. The Democratic leaders are already taking extraordinary action by opposing a president’s war policies. They may wish to stave off the slightest hint of an impression that they are, at the same time, “soft on defense.”

Yet in another sense, this passivity is par for the course. The congressional armed services committees have rarely done more than tinker with a president’s military budget. There have been exceptions, when the House and Senate have been gripped by great debates over high-profile nuclear weapons systems (the Anti-Ballistic Missile in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the B-1 bomber and MX missile in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s), but there are no such projects on the Pentagon’s drawing boards today.

The closest thing to such a project is President Bush’s cherished missile-defense project—a scaled-down version of Richard Nixon’s ABM and Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars. And, as might be expected, the House panelists did make at least a dent in missile defense—though not a large one, cutting Bush’s $9.5 billion request by $764 million, or 8 percent. Still, it is a cut—which is more than any committee inflicted on the program when the Republicans controlled Capitol Hill.

The savings from this cut were transferred to more imminent and practical needs—more body armor and mine-resistant vehicles for soldiers in Iraq, a 3.5 percent pay hike for military personnel (a bit higher than the 3 percent hike that Bush had proposed), and a cancellation of extra user fees for military health care.

Besides missile defense, the House panel dealt a blow to only one other weapons program—the Army’s unwieldy, high-tech Future Combat Systems, which it cut by nearly one-quarter, from $3.7 billion to $2.8 billion. The official rationale in the committee’s budget report: “The Army has identified bigger, more critical priorities that must be addressed before devoting such large resources to futuristic technologies.”

This is mumbo-jumbo code word for the real reason: The Army is the chief beneficiary of the committee’s budget increases, so the extra money has to be taken out of the Army’s hide. The only big new weapon on the Army’s R&D shelf is the Future Combat Systems; therefore, it—and not any Air Force or Navy system—has to take the fall. (Missile defense is run by an independent Pentagon agency, so it can be cut without upsetting the delicate budgetary balance among the services.)

And so, the House committee left unscathed the requests for a new aircraft carrier ($3.1 billion), a new nuclear submarine ($2.7 billion), two new destroyer ships ($3.4 billion), 12 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft ($2.4 billion), and numerous other weapons programs that could just as validly have been cut on the grounds that “more critical priorities … must be addressed.”

The budget season is far from over. The House armed services committee only authorizes spending for the Defense Department. The House appropriations committee obligates the actual money. Amendments to both bills can be offered on the House floor. The Senate goes through the same process. Then any disagreements between the two chambers’ versions are resolved in a House-Senate conference committee.

Most of the focus this season—and properly so—will be on Iraq, especially on whether funding for the war should be tied to conditions for withdrawing U.S. troops. However, away from the limelight, legislators will deliberate over spending much, much more money for weapons, projects, and dreams that have little or nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, or national security, as the term is generally understood. And as the defense bill moves from one committee and chamber to another, as the lobbyists step into gear, and as the wrangling and trade-offs intensify, this larger budget is likely to grow larger still.