War Stories

The Discussion That Isn’t Happening

Why isn’t Congress asking tough questions about Pentagon spending?

The Senate is debating the defense bill now, and the central fact about the proceedings is that nobody’s talking about money.

Certainly this is strange. The military budget in question—not including any money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—totals $500 billion. This is roughly equal to the military budgets of all the rest of the world’s nations combined. Adjusting for inflation, it is larger than the U.S. military budget at the peak of the Cold War—in fact, larger than any budget since the Korean War. Again, this is true, apart from the money allocated for the current wars.

Shouldn’t some legislators be asking about the ways the Pentagon is spending so much money and whether all those ways are necessary?

It would be one thing if, in lieu of debates about programs and budgets, they were at least arguing over policy and priorities. But they’re not doing much of that, either.

The most explosive debate has been over a Republican amendment to denounce MoveOn.org for its advertisement besmirching the name of Gen. David Petraeus (which the group rhymed with “Betray Us”). The ad was merely witless (and tactically idiotic), but the proposed amendment was worse: a disingenuous ploy to equate criticism of the war with disrespect to the armed services. It passed by a wide margin.

Democrats have offered up a dozen or so amendments, mandating or suggesting various approaches to withdrawing troops from Iraq or altering the strategy that keeps them there. These motions, too, are kabuki. Everyone knows they’re unlikely to attract the 60 votes needed to circumvent a filibuster, much less the 67 votes to override a presidential veto.

The Democrats’ amendments at least have political value. Their sponsors can say afterward that they tried to work out a compromise. They can add that some of these motions were approved by a majority of the Congress, but they were blocked by Republican stubbornness. They can then campaign in 2008 on the need to put 60 Democrats in the Senate, so they can pass substantive bills.

Still, for the moment, they’re not accomplishing anything. And beyond the symbolism and electoral positioning is a debate that isn’t happening over real money and national security.

The House and Senate budget committees were established in 1974 to make such a debate possible. The Vietnam War was ending. The public wanted someone to set new national priorities. No congressional body had the power to do that, to look out on the entire budget and impose limits on each federal department. That would be the budget committees’ job, and the Congressional Budget Office, which was formed at the same time, would assist with economic analyses.

Things didn’t work out that way. The functional committees—armed services, transportation, energy, and so forth—continued to rule their domains. There remains no forum where lawmakers could discuss and decide the question: “How much for guns, how much for butter?”

This is, in a sense, understandable. Especially during wartime, especially after the nation has been attacked, legislators don’t want to seem “soft on defense” by proposing that the money for, say, one F-22 stealth fighter-bomber ($230 million) be reallocated to health care or a college-loan program. (At the same time, though, when legislators cut $230 million in health care or college loans, they aren’t forced to acknowledge that they chose to spend the money on an F-22 instead. A choice is being made, in effect; it just never has to be put in those terms.)

But the current evasion goes well beyond questions of guns vs. butter, hawk vs. dove, or conservative vs. liberal. Congress is also shirking choices of guns vs. missiles vs. ships, subs, and planes.

This year’s military budget includes $102 billion for weapons procurement—up 10 percent from last year’s. Among the weapons being procured: $3.1 billion for a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; $3.5 billion for a DDG-1000 destroyer; $2.7 billion for another Virginia-class submarine; $6.1 billion for 12 F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighters; and $4.6 billion for 20 more F-22s.

All these programs are legacies of the Cold War. None of them has any real connection to Iraq, Afghanistan, or the global war on terror. And yet the Navy and Air Force keep churning them out as if the Soviet Union were still a menace—or, under updated rationales, as if China were a global military power right now. (Maybe it will become one in 10 or 20 years, but if that’s the case, can some of these programs be—not canceled necessarily, but at least cut back a bit or deferred?)

These programs aren’t holy writ. They are, in large measure, the product of institutional imperatives and bureaucratic politics. Look at the defense budget from that angle. The Army gets $130.1 billion. The Navy (including the Marines) gets $130.8 billion. The Air Force gets $136.6 billion.

This near-even divvying is no fluke or accident. It’s been constant since the mid-1960s. (In no year since then has the split varied by more than 2 percentage points.) There is no principle of national-security policy that requires the money be divided this way. It would be an amazing coincidence if there were. Its origins lie in the truce that the service chiefs reached 40 years ago, and have maintained ever since, to quell the vicious internecine rivalries of the 1950s, when the chiefs battled furiously for every scarce dollar.

It is for this reason that secretaries of defense and seasoned congressional chairmen rarely get entangled in procurement battles. They don’t want to reignite the hellfire of interservice rivalries.

There are two other reasons Congress shies away. First, procurement contracts mean money and jobs for at least a few states and congressional districts. Anyone who threatens those constituents will do so at the peril of their own district’s projects

Second, the subject is complicated. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Congress engaged in prolonged and passionate debate over big-ticket nuclear weapons and policies—the B1, the MX, cruise missiles, Star Wars, the nuclear freeze. But the nuclear debate was abstract, almost theological. It wasn’t very hard to learn the basic arguments. It wasn’t quite real; no one had ever fought a two-way nuclear war.

The tactics, strategy, and logistics of conventional warfare are very real. How many and what kind of tanks, fighter planes, and aircraft carriers are needed are questions that take some expertise to calculate and appraise. Committees and key legislators have experts on their staff. And sometimes they’ll press for adjustments on the margin or link full funding to certain changes in design. But generally, given all the political risks in challenging, much less slashing, these sorts of weapons programs, the natural tendency is not to bother or even get interested.

And so, the senators aren’t debating money, weapons, priorities, or policies. But they did beat up those leftist bullies who were picking on David Petraeus.