Fight brewing over DOD budget cuts

Fueled by the public's desire to see defense spending slashed, Congress and Pentagon may be in for a showdown

Recent polls have shown that the U.S. public overwhelmingly favors cutting defense spending as a means of reducing the federal budget deficit. But top defense officials warn of an impending crisis if the Defense Department's budget suffers overly drastic reductions.

Now, a budgetary battle royale looms on Capitol Hill as politics, national security and a lingering financial crisis collide.

High-level Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller Robert Hale, caution that national security would be jeopardized if Congress goes too far in swinging the budget ax. Recently, Gates illustrated that point with historical examples.

“Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later — indeed, as they always have in the past,” Gates said Feb. 17 in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Surely, we should learn from our national experience since World War I. ... Drastic reductions in the size and strength of the U.S. military make armed conflict all the more likely, with an unacceptably high cost in American blood and treasure.”

Here in the present, defense experts are predicting a nasty showdown between DOD and Congress, fueled by a public tired of funding two long and costly wars.

Gates has indicated that the $553 billion requested for fiscal 2012 is nearly bare-bones for the Defense Department — a sentiment shared by at least one Capitol Hill player. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he has significant concerns about that budget. He noted the $13 billion decrease from last year’s projected figure and the zero-growth rate built in for future years.

However, that premise conflicts with the general mood in Washington and the rest of the country. Several recent public opinion polls clearly illustrate the public’s disillusionment with paying for war.

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in January showed that when faced with a choice of cutting three big government programs, 55 percent of respondents chose defense spending, while 21 percent chose Medicare and 13 percent chose Social Security.

Similarly, in a study by the Program for Public Consultation, people were presented with the federal budget and asked to propose changes. Those surveyed chose to reduce defense-related spending by an average of $109 billion out of about $146 billion in federal budget cuts overall.

Although the public isn't in charge of making budget cuts, Americans' opinions are being heard on Capitol Hill, where they will shape the fight for major spending reductions.

“Congress will have to have the courage to take the steps the Pentagon has avoided,” wrote Larry Korb, Laura Conley and Alex Rothman of the Center for American Progress in a Feb. 15 article titled "Defense Cuts Are Mandatory."

‘Budgetary trench warfare’

Nevertheless, contrary to the doomsday picture painted by Gates and Hale, some experts say that although cuts to the defense budget might be painful, they won’t incite a failure of national security.

“To suggest that this is an unmanageable and difficult process or one that puts the department at the edge of crisis, I think simply overstates the problem,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University and previously a senior White House budget official for national security.

“We have been in this kind of situation before with deficit reduction at the end of the Cold War from 1985 to 1998, when the force came down substantially,” Adams said. "Procurement went down 50 percent, [and] the whole budget went down 30 percent. And we still wound up with a force that, while some thought it was stressed, was still capable of using Saddam Hussein as a speed bump in 2003."

The arguments are the basis for what Adams called the iron triangle — a power struggle among DOD, appropriations committees and the rest of Congress. And he said the fight is heating up.

“We’re going to see a tug of war on Capitol Hill that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Adams said. “This is budgetary trench warfare.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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