WASHINGTON — As another debt-deal deadline looms this winter in Congress, an unusual alliance of lawmakers has joined forces to put the Pentagon budget under greater scrutiny and to end the almost carte blanche status it enjoyed in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a letter last month to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders, 11 Democratic and 11 Republican lawmakers asked that Defense Department spending be put squarely on the table in the coming clashes over debt reduction.
“We believe that substantial defense savings can be achieved over the long term without compromising national security, through strategic reductions in the Pentagon’s budget,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
Shifting fiscal and political pressures influence the emerging congressional coalition; approval ratings have hit historic lows among Americans upset by political gridlock.
But some military experts, both analysts who favor deeper spending cuts and those who oppose them, say there are additional reasons for the re-examination: The record federal debt, now at more than $16.4 trillion, has become a crucial priority that Pentagon leaders say affects military planning. At the same time, the national urgency over anti-terrorism has subsided as the Sept. 11 attacks recede into the chronological distance; the Iraq War has ended, the Afghanistan War is winding down and anti-terror efforts shift to new strongholds such as Mali and Yemen.
Lawrence Korb, who held a senior Pentagon post under President Ronald Reagan, sees a group of unlikely partners: Democrats who want to preserve social programs, tea party-backed Republicans focused on slashing the debt and libertarians aligned with Rep. Ron Paul — the Texas Republican and 2012 presidential candidate — who generally oppose U.S. military ventures abroad.
The congressional coalition has been at the center of a movement that’s stunted defense spending since its 2010 peak of $729 billion.
“The tide has turned,” Korb said.
First came the 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposed $487 billion in Pentagon funding cuts over a decade. It also directed Congress to find an additional $500 billion in reductions or accept forced across-the-board 8.6 percent cuts amounting to that total, now slated to start March 1.
Then, last July, the House of Representatives comfortably approved a one-year freeze on military spending, with 89 Republicans joining 158 Democrats in voting for it. While the moratorium didn’t become law, it sent a signal that bipartisan resistance to unbridled military funding was rising.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who helped spearhead the bipartisan letter, said it was intellectually dishonest for his party to protect the Pentagon while taking the knife to other large federal agencies.
“It undermines Republicans’ credibility on spending issues if we’re not willing to also look at the defense budget for possible savings,” said Mulvaney, who’s just starting his second term. “It’s hard to go home and say that we want to cut everything but not cut a penny on defense. People don’t believe that. More and more Republicans are willing to talk about this openly now.”
While the lawmakers who wrote last month’s letter have yet to get a response, the broader movement they represent alarms some defense analysts, who fear the pushback against military spending may go too far.
“By the time the Obama administration and Congress are done, we won’t have a big enough military to do what we need to do to remain a global power,” Thomas Donnelly, an analyst with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told McClatchy Newspapers.
“A lot of people who are in favor of cutting the Pentagon budget want to see the United States play a lesser role in the world,” Donnelly said.
Korb, though, said the Pentagon could easily absorb an additional $500 billion in cuts over a decade, which he said would take its budget down to 2007 levels when adjusted for inflation. He’d like to see Obama, lawmakers and top military brass find the cuts instead of having them indiscriminately imposed across the board.
“The defense budget went up so rapidly, they didn’t have to make any hard choices,” said Korb, who’s now a national security analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington. “They had waste like I’ve never seen. They spent $50 billion on weapons that they then canceled. Their cost overruns on new weapons systems were $400 billion to $500 billion.”
Korb said the last time Congress had forced significant cuts in military spending was during Reagan’s second term, after passage of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act, following a large surge in Pentagon funding that the late president had championed to counter the Soviet Union.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who joined Mulvaney in leading the effort, said the major defense contractors made it difficult for lawmakers to back military spending cuts by spreading subcontractors and suppliers for huge weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet across virtually every state.
“Members (of Congress) don’t evaluate the need for weapons systems in terms of national security,” Ellison said. “They’re worried about families coming up to them and asking why they’re cutting jobs.”
Mulvaney cited Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the growing might of “the military-industrial complex” in the former World War II commander’s January 1961 farewell address.
“It is a problem for Republicans who think that defense spending creates jobs but other government spending doesn’t create jobs,” Mulvaney said. “That opens us up to charges of hypocrisy, and rightly so. We’re selective in our Keynesian philosophy.”
Keynesian economists, following the late John Maynard Keynes’ ideas, believe that government intervention is often necessary for sustained growth, especially during recessions and other economic downturns.
Some independent studies have indicated that Pentagon funding of big weapons systems has diminishing returns when it comes to job creation.
Total federal money to the five biggest defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — increased by 10 percent from 2006 to 2011. But their combined number of employees dropped by 3 percent during the same period, according to a report last year by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington.
The Pentagon budget rose from $421 billion in 2001 — that inflation-adjusted figure is in current dollars — to $711 billion in 2011, a 69 percent hike. The increases were used mainly to finance the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other anti-terror initiatives.
The defense budget fell to $656 billion last year, mainly because of the cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone cost $1.4 trillion in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, with annual expenditures now declining thanks to the exit of most U.S. troops from Iraq and the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan.
In last fall’s presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized Obama’s proposed future Pentagon funding levels and called for billions of dollars in new military spending.
Now some Republican senators have challenged Obama’s choice of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, himself a Republican, as defense secretary because of Hagel’s past opposition to the Iraq War and his recent calls for major decreases in Pentagon funding.
And lawmakers of both parties — especially those who represent heavy military states — warn of disastrous impacts on national security if the more than $500 billion in military cuts over 10 years proceeds under the forced spending reductions scheduled to begin March 1.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who signed the Mulvaney-Ellison letter, said some calls for greater defense spending had baffled him.
“I’ve never understood why we continue to defend Europe from Russia more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed,” McClintock said. “We’re spending considerably more today, even inflation-adjusted, than we spent at the height of the Vietnam War, when we were facing down the Soviet Union and had 500,000 combat troops in the field.”
McClintock said the need to reduce the federal debt had made trimming military costs a necessity.
“Before you can provide for the common defense, you have to be able to pay for it. The ability of our country to do so is coming into grave doubt.”