With the new fiscal year for the federal government rapidly approaching, the irresponsible and dangerous game of chicken being played with national defense continues. For most of the year, the White House and Democrats have made it clear that they will block passage of defense authorization and appropriations bills that contain some $38 billion in new defense resources unless the Republican majority in Congress agrees to boost domestic discretionary spending by an equal amount. Last week, Senate Democrats made good on that threat by blocking a vote on the defense appropriations bill. Given the state of the world, given the state of the U.S. military, this is about as irresponsible as it gets. But being irresponsible has become something of an art form for this White House.
Yet it would also be irresponsible if Republicans didn’t hold their noses and at least seek a compromise with congressional Democrats and the Obama administration for the sake of national defense. Lacking the presidency, Republicans won’t be able to insist on the right outcome—an increase for defense without buying off the Democrats with extra domestic spending. They could take a shot at passing that kind of continuing resolution (CR) first. But if they hold a strict line on domestic spending, the result will be a short-term CR that leaves an already hardpressed military with fewer resources, prevents any new program starts to modernize the force, and perhaps forces the cancellation or renegotiation of contracts already on the books.
Worse still, a short-term CR may well lead to a yearlong continuing resolution in which defense spending would actually be less than the sequestration budget cap’s own onerous requirement for the year. And a CR for this upcoming year would almost certainly guarantee a CR for much of the following year as members of both parties put off any and all hard votes during an election year.
So it’s going to be necessary to compromise. If that means congressional Republicans agreeing with Pelosi Democrats on a dollar-for-dollar increase in both defense and domestic spending, so be it. The goal should be to do no more harm to a military that is already in dire straits.
Do Republicans, for lack of a compromise now, want to hand a possible incoming Republican administration an even more hollowed-out military? Do they really want to put the next president in the position of having to deal with multiple crises in the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe with a military that is spread thin, using older and even more worn-out equipment that is, by the Pentagon’s account, not going to be combat ready? The administration has made clear that it wants to enshrine “leading from behind” as the new American way of war by ensuring its successor has no better option. Is this the predicament Republicans want to hand the next chief executive?
Republicans seem to believe that the hole the military is in is of recent vintage—a product of the Obama years—and, as such, can be reversed in short order. But the drawdown of America’s military capabilities has been going on since the early 1990s. Bush I, faced with a recession, cut defense below what his administration had previously said was needed for a post-Cold War era. President Clinton’s team then slashed men and programs even further, leading commentators to refer to their time in office as the era of “the procurement holiday.” And despite Dick Cheney’s famous utterance during the 2000 campaign that “help is on the way” for the military, Bush II’s OMB killed any notions of an immediate fix by allowing only the most marginal bump up for defense in its first budget request.
It’s of course true that total defense spending grew following 9/11. But the bulk of that increase was tied to fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plussing-up -maintenance accounts to keep older platforms in the field, and adding money to personnel accounts to keep the exceptional all-volunteer force in the fight through its constant deployments. The added funds, as one prominent defense analyst has noted, produced no “significant modernization of the military.” In short, well before the Obama team arrived and started cutting defense programs, and well before the bipartisan suicide pact of the Budget Control Act of 2011 was enacted into law, the American military was in trouble.
No doubt compromising with the president would be a hard pill to swallow. And, certainly, the deficit would increase—perhaps as much as 15 percent. Deficits matter, but as Ronald Reagan understood, absent American military preeminence the world will only get more dangerous and the very stability needed for economic growth—and deficit reduction—will surely disappear.