By Brendan McGarry
The retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is hitting back at critics who blasted his final defense bill as prioritizing pork over readiness.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted 325–98 to pass its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which would spare cuts to military weapons systems and personnel benefits next year despite a veto threat from the White House and major areas of disagreement in the Senate.
The bill would bar the Pentagon from retiring the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II gunships, U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes and KC-10 Extender refueling tankers. It would also block the department from putting into storage some of the Navy’s cruisers and amphibious assault ships. What’s more, it would add money for weapons the military didn’t ask for, such as M1 Abrams tanks and EA-18 Growler electronic attack jets.
After the chamber’s vote, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon responded to critics who, he said, characterized the legislation as a sop to parochial interests.
“That is a lazy dismissal of a long, arduous process that still leaves many holes in our defense and few good choices,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to intense efforts by a bipartisan group of members and staff, we were able to successfully do as the law compels — make the tough decisions that put the troops first.”
Outside analysts argue the legislation doesn’t allow the Pentagon’s uniformed and civilian leadership to adequately prepare for a shifting strategic landscape and automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
“The committee’s mark in my judgment puts pork and hardware over readiness,” Gordon Adams, an American University professor who served as a senior defense budget official at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, said earlier this month.
“It basically says,” he said, “we are going to keep stuffing programs into this budget and hope that it survives. We are going to deal with the pet projects of a lot of members of Congress, so they fully fund hardware accounts.”
Todd Harrison and Bryan Clark, senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington, D.C., made similar points.
“Congress is trying to have it both ways by cutting defense spending and expecting the Defense Department to continue with business as usual,” they wrote in a recent report. “But the savings will have to come from somewhere.”
They continued, “Defense cuts require hard choices, but if the Senate follows the House’s lead, we could end up with a paper tiger military that looks good on the surface but isn’t prepared to respond in a security environment that becomes more uncertain every day.”
The Senate is expected to begin debating its version of the bill later this year, possibly in the fall.