Unlike David Frum, I don’t blame the Tea Party for a budget deal that promises, ultimately, to:
(a) gut the defense budget;
(b) seriously limit America’s ability to project military power; and
(c) undermine our national security.
The Tea Party, after all, isn’t interested in cutting the defense budget; it’s interested in containing our crushing debt burden, which is caused by explosive growth in entitlements, not defense.
True, with Obama as president, a political compromise required that the Republicans “give up” something, either tax hikes or defense cuts; and congressional negotiators chose the latter. But while that says a lot about Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Boehner, and McConnell, it says little about the Tea Party.
In fact, if the Tea Party had been able to craft a budget deal, I think it’s safe to say that the defense budget would not have been targeted.
So I don’t blame the Tea Party. Instead, I blame the GOP establishment — and especially so-called defense hawks such as Senator John McCain — which has given short shrift to actually understanding the defense budget. Their lack of substantive knowledge and inattention to detail have caused them to acquiesce to ill-advised defense cuts.
“Surely, there must be waste and fat in the defense budget,” say these Republicans (and some conservatives). “So why should defense be exempt from the budget scalpel?”
That sounds so appealing, but it’s a sentiment, not a thought: Because if you ask these Republicans to identify the “waste” and “fat” that they would cut, they quickly get tongue tied. They can’t spell out any specifics.
Of course, the defense budget surely can be made more efficient. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), for instance, estimates that the Pentagon could save as much as $32 billion annually if it simply adopted a public-private partnership for performance-based logistics.
But as the Heritage Foundation points out, that’s not happening because current law severely restricts the amount of money that can be allocated to private contractors who perform depot-level maintenance.
Unfortunately, no one in Congress is talking about changing the law to modernize defense logistics work. “Overpaid contractors,” after all, have become the favorite bogeyman of the Left, and the Right is largely uninterested in defense.
Veterans benefits and military pay are also off limits — literally. Thus here, too, commonsense, market-oriented reform seems impossible, thanks to the budget deal. Yet pay and benefits — and especially healthcare — are the fastest growing parts of the defense budget.
“Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service,” writes defense analyst Thomas Donnelly,
has calculated that the costs of military pay and benefits, even after adjusting for inflation, have risen from $55,000 per individual service member in 1998 to $80,000 in 2009. When health care costs are included, the figure rises to more than $100,000 per year. That’s before training or equipping anyone – these are just the costs of being present.
Military healthcare costs, adds Donnelly, have tripled — from about four percent of defense spending at the end of the Cold War to a projected 15 percent in 2015. And so, a greater share of the defense budget is being spent on personnel vice weapons.
Of course, no one is arguing for actual cuts in military pay and benefits. But reform of the system is long overdue.
For example, the Bowles-Simpson commission — whose recommendations Obama completely ignored — recommended delaying costly military retirement pay until age 60, while reducing the vesting period from 20 years to 10 years. The commission also recommended a modest increase in healthcare fees for military retirees.
But now it seems, thanks to the budget deal, such reforms are off the table and not even subject to discussion or negotiation. Instead, we’re going to cut core defense capabilities — i.e., military weapon systems and force structure — to meet arbitrary budget targets.