By: Suzanne Dershowitz, Public Policy Fellow, POGO
Because Congress has not reached a compromise to avert sequestration, across-the-board cuts appear poised to take effect this Friday, March 1. The countdown is on. The defense industry is still trying to induce mass hysteria in Washington at the eleventh hour with outsized claims that the sky is falling and they will need to lay off millions of workers. But everyone isn’t buying into the hype. A growing number of organizations and politicians from left, right, and center are calling for a pared down defense budget that better reflects the 21st century threats we currently face.
Most experts agree that a more balanced approach with targeted cuts over a longer period of time would be a better way to tackle Washington’s spending problem, and there is increasingly broad consensus that the waste at the Pentagon must remain on the table. It is clear that the bloated defense budget is riddled with waste and there are places we can cut that will not threaten national security, but will actually allow for a sensible reshaping to make us safer. A number of plans for strategic reductions have emerged in the last year, including POGO’s with our partners at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Yesterday, Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) offered his alternative plan–the Smarter Than Sequester Defense Spending Reduction Act (H.R. 804). The Act would cancel sequestration and instead require DoD to reduce spending over a 10-year period.
“We can and must reduce government spending at all levels, including at the Pentagon,” Coffman said.
While we don’t endorse all of the cuts Rep. Coffman proposes, we applaud him for stepping up to the plate and offering some good ideas. The largest proposed targeted cut in his plan would combat waste by reducing programs and activities that do not contribute significantly to military capability. POGO has long advocated for some of the other reductions in his bill, such as cutting U.S. troops stationed in Europe, delaying refurbishment of the Abrams tank, and reducing the top-heavy number of Pentagon generals and admirals. We also support reducing DoD’s reliance on contractors and cutting excessive funding for military bands.
On the other side of the aisle, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have also introduced a bill (H.R. 505) for savings in the Pentagon budget. Again, we don’t endorse all of the proposals, but Title VI “Cut Pentagon Waste to Achieve Balance” includes POGO recommendations to reduce nuclear forces, limit excessive contractor compensation, relocate troops from Europe to the U.S., limit procurement of Virginia class subs, prohibit procurement of the V-22 Osprey aircraft, and limit expenditures on military bands. These are common sense initiatives for reining in profligate spending that deserve serious consideration.
In December Reps. Ellison and Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) sent a bipartisan letter (along with 20 other Democrats and Republicans) to the President and House and Senate leadership endorsing sensible defense spending cuts. The letter refers to “respected policy organizations across the political spectrum” that have recently issued proposals that would responsibly achieve up to $500 billion in defense savings over the next decade.
There are a lot of ideas out there for sensible defense cuts. Now Congress needs to dig in, engage in meaningful dialogue, and make some tough choices.
A New York Times editorial that appeared in print on Sunday echoes Coffman, Ellison, Mulvaney, and Grijalva, stating “both the generals and the civilians in the Pentagon know that some cuts are possible and that even under the sequester American security need not be compromised.” According to the editorial board, military leaders would also have greater flexibility to shift funds than some industry insiders would have us believe. The editorial frames the current debate in terms of the cushy deals contractors will continue to enjoy for years to come, the larger historical context of past drawdowns, and the need to shift our spending priorities for a better equipped military in the future:
If the Pentagon is ill prepared to deal with the sequester, it is to some extent a self-inflicted wound. Military leaders assumed the sequester would never happen and refused to mitigate its effects in advance. The Pentagon also does itself no favor by continuing to throw money at troubled weapons. As for the sequester’s impact on defense contractors, experts say the contractors have long known military spending was on the decline and built that into their projections. Production backlogs resulting from past contracts are also expected to cushion the effect.
After 9/11, the Pentagon was handed a virtual blank check and its base budget soared from $397 billion in 2001 to $557 billion in 2013. Spending is expected to decline in real terms this year, but after that it will rise slightly, even if the sequester takes effect, experts say. By some calculations, President Obama will still spend more on defense than most postwar presidents. The Pentagon needs to focus on shaping the force for new threats. Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are ending, it also needs to make reforms and rein in spending.
The public also increasingly recognizes the urgent need to find real savings of taxpayer dollars in the Pentagon budget. In a recent poll for The Hill, a full 58 percent of respondents prioritized cutting America’s debt over maintaining current spending levels on domestic and military programs. “In order to reduce America’s debts and deficits, more than twice as many voters said they would support defense cuts as said they would support cuts to social programs.” 49 percent of respondents said they would support cutting military spending. A rising number of voters agree—defense spending should not be sacrosanct in a time when everyday Americans have had to tighten their belts.
A real shift has taken place–there is now wide-ranging agreement on the need to reshape the Pentagon budget to get government spending under control. Republican hawks are joining the ranks of peacenik progressives, and media coverage in op-eds and news articles increasingly reflects this new consensus. American security depends on our financial stability, and the days of Congress writing DoD a blank check every year are decidedly over.
Suzie Dershowitz is a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.
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