Pentagon budget faces tough battle on Capitol Hill

President George W. Bush for 2008 has submitted to Congress one of the largest-ever budget requests for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), but the Pentagon’s proposed budget faces perhaps its toughest battle in Congress in the last 15 years.

John Keller, Editor in Chief

President George W. Bush for 2008 has submitted to Congress one of the largest-ever budget requests for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), but the Pentagon’s proposed budget faces perhaps its toughest battle in Congress in the last 15 years.

The last time the DOD’s fight for dollars faced odds this difficult was 1992 when the administration of President Bush’s father, Republican George H. W. Bush, squared off against a Democrat-majority Congress with Les Aspin and Sam Nunn chairing the House and Senate armed services committees.

Take a second to remember that Bob Dole and Al Gore were senators then, as were Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Thom Daschle, Jesse Helms, and Alan Simpson. Of its 535 members, 325 were Democrats, and it was one in a long string of Congresses that was openly hostile to military spending-particularly for technology-rich programs like ballistic-missile defense, advanced jet fighters, and space-based surveillance.

I was a reporter in Washington in those days and I remember the predictable routine of defense budgets presented by Republican administrations to Democrat-led Congresses. Each DOD budget request was declared “dead on arrival” upon submission. Congressional leaders used exactly those same words-year in and year out; you could count on it like the Sun rising in the east.

Imagine my mock surprise when the newly elected Democratic Congress-the first led by the party since early 1995-declared the fiscal year 2008 defense budget, submitted to them on Feb. 5, “dead on arrival.” I swear, the only thing that ever changes is the faces.

In fairness, it isn’t just the Democratic congressional majority that bodes ill for the defense budget next year. Experts on both sides of the aisle have been warning for the past few years that demands from Social Security and Medicaid, Hurricane Katrina relief, and a host of other federal priorities make continuing increases in the DOD budget unlikely.

Put that together with national fatigue with the Iraq War, pent-up demand for increases in social spending, and a Congress with a stated goal of sticking it to President Bush in any way it can, and we have a recipe for potential deep cuts in the 2008 DOD budget request.

For the 2007 DOD budget, a Republican-led Congress gave the Pentagon more than what it asked. The 2007 DOD request for discretionary spending was $419.3 billion. Congress handed over $427 billion. I don’t think we’ll see that again for a while.

For 2008 President Bush is asking for even more-$481.4 billion in discretionary spending, which would be an 8.7 percent increase over the 2007 request, and an 11.3 percent increase over this year’s congressional defense appropriation.

Discretionary spending includes money for weapons procurement and research, salaries, ammunition, and the like, but does not include money that directly pays for the Iraq War or the global war on terrorism. Money for those activities is in separate budgetary lines.

A military budget request of this large size puzzles me somewhat. I admit that I don’t understand the political strategy behind it. This request reminds me of a football team playing deep in its own territory, and behind by four points with just 10 seconds left in the game. In that situation we can count on the team to throw a long “hail Mary” pass for the end zone in hopes of getting lucky. I wonder if President Bush is doing the same thing with this budget.

I had been expecting minor cuts in the DOD request for the past couple of years, and so far have been wrong. Maybe I’ll be wrong again for 2008, but I don’t think so.

Looking back on my days in Washington during the ’80s and ’90s, I remember the most tempting targets for military budget cutters in Congress included ballistic-missile defense-referred to back then as the Strategic Defense Initiative-as well as the Navy F/A-18 fighter-bomber, new Navy warships, and projects to automate maneuver, logistics, and command-and-control on the battlefield.

With that in mind, I can guess how this Congress will go after the 2008 proposed DOD budget.

Money for ballistic-missile defense now goes to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), for which the DOD budget is asking $8.8 billion next year, which represents a 6.2 percent decrease from current-year spending of $9.38 billion.

Missile defense was and is a fat target on Capitol Hill. Back in the ’80s I remember sitting in congressional hearing rooms listening to Carl Sagan testifying chapter-and-verse to sympathetic senators and representatives about how systems to defend against ballistic-missile attack were too complex, technologically impossible, would never work, and would waste billions of dollars.

During the same hearings I remember listening to a beleaguered Richard Perle heave heavy sighs before making the DOD’s case for missile-defense research to skeptical members of Congress whose minds were already made up.

That was more than 20 years ago. Any bets on what this spring’s congressional hearings on the DOD budget will look like?

This is a vulnerable military budget before a hostile Congress. The military services for example, are asking for $14.3 billion for 10 shipbuilding programs. Included in the request is money to build a new aircraft carrier, two new destroyers, three littoral combat ships, one amphibious transport dock ship, one attack submarine, one auxiliary dry cargo ship, one landing helicopter assault ship, and one joint high-speed vessel.

These are all fat targets. So is the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, for which DOD is asking $3.66 billion next year. The FCS proposed budget is for continued development of eight manned ground vehicles, two unmanned ground vehicles, two unmanned aerial vehicles, the non-line-of-sight launch system, unattended ground sensors, and an information network.

The FCS program already has come under fire during an ostensibly sympathetic Republican-majority Congress for missed deadlines and cost overruns. This new Congress, which is eager to send a message to President Bush, undoubtedly will find this program an easy place to consider funding cuts.

I’ll be eager to see how the sitting Congress treats the DOD budget once hearings start. I don’t think the results will be what we’ve become accustomed to over the past several years.

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