By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Presidents do not often veto defense budget bills, which annually set spending levels for the huge military structure intended to keep the country safe. But President Obama has threatened to do just that this year, and he should follow through if Congress doesn’t make significant changes in the legislation now under consideration.
There are many problems with how the military spending plan for 2016 is shaping up, including budget gimmickry, political chicanery and a refusal to make the right choices. Republicans and Democratic hawks are determined to pour billions of additional dollars into the Pentagon (the House passed a nearly $612 billion defense authorization bill this month), but Republicans also want to pretend they are being fiscally careful. So lawmakers are using any trick to make it look as if both goals are being accomplished.
President Obama began the military budget discussion by proposing a $39 billion increase over the spending cap. That seems high, but Republican leaders did not confront the question of fiscal imprudence. Instead, they took roughly the same amount and stuffed it into a special $89 billion war-fighting account that is off-budget, is not subject to mandatory caps and essentially functions as a Pentagon slush fund.
This shell game dates to the compromise in 2011 that was supposed to force lawmakers to negotiate deficit reduction measures by threatening them with draconian across-the-board cuts in military and nonmilitary programs. The cuts were never supposed to take effect, especially in military programs; it was assumed that members of Congress would be forced to negotiate smarter deficit reductions. They never did, so in 2013 a sequester went into effect, with cuts that have taken a toll on programs that assist the most vulnerable Americans, including the elderly, the disabled and impoverished families with children.
The Pentagon says it has been hurt by the sequester, too. But military hawks from both parties did not want to actually cut military spending. And Republicans did not want to invest in domestic programs or consider new taxes to cover costs, so the taxpayers were left with a charade.
After the White House said Mr. Obama “will not support a budget that locks in sequestration and he will not fix defense without fixing nondefense spending,” 143 Democrats and eight Republicans voted against the House Pentagon bill. Speaker John Boehner then played the phony patriotism card, suggesting that Democrats don’t support American troops.
The truth is that some Republicans are uncomfortable with their leaders’ tactics, but they know their party has no intention of repealing the budget caps, so they agreed to stuff the “war-fighting fund” with money for basic Pentagon expenses, as well as money for waging war.
That is not the only budgetary sleight of hand. The measure passed by the House tries to protect the new Ohio-class nuclear submarines, estimated at $8 billion each, by shifting the funding from the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account to another. Not only is that bad budgeting practice, but it avoids the hard choices that the military should be making about what military equipment is needed and what is not. The plan to build 12 more Ohio-class subs is excessive; the number could be cut by at least two.
Under the House bill, the overinvestment in modernizing the country’s nuclear weapons, which is expected to cost $348 billion over the next decade, would continue. That would make it harder to pay for the conventional weapons that America actually uses. The bill would supply more military equipment than the administration has requested — including the over-budget and technically challenged F-35 jet fighters.
The House bill invests millions of extra dollars in a questionable missile defense program. It continues to prohibit Mr. Obama from shutting down the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba. And it fails to address some of the sensible reforms pushed by a diverse group of defense experts, like reducing the number of private contractors working for the Pentagon and closing excess military bases in the United States. These could save billions of dollars.
The country faces daunting security challenges — from the Islamic State to Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea. But throwing money at the military doesn’t guarantee security, especially when it is spent on programs that don’t make the country safer and is denied to programs that enhance security.