Defense budget to be shaped by 'hard choices'

The process for establishing federal budgets was already scattershot and politically charged, but with the emergence of the new “super committee” under orders to identify deep budget cuts, it's become even more complicated, according to some policy experts.

To successfully parse out Defense Department funds, Capitol Hill negotiators will need to bring honesty and a willingness to make sacrifices to the table, leaving behind political agendas, a group of Washington insiders said Sept. 13, speaking on a panel at the U.S. Capitol organized by Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Public Notice.

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Particularly of concern is the threat of a sequestration process that will automatically enact billions in sweeping budget cuts if the "super committee" does not agree on federal spending reductions, the panel indicated, although most said there is still hope.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to achieve agreement,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute. “But more than a handful of people are willing to make hard choices that wouldn’t have been on the table 15 or 20 years ago.”

Another positive sign is that decision-makers seem to be willing to put everything on the table, according to Janne Nolan, director of nuclear security at the American Security Project.

“This should be taken as an opportunity to review critical priorities in the American posture,” she said. “We need to think about entitlements, tax reform and the part of federal spending that relates to national security as being part of public policy that is not sacrosanct in some way that elevates it out of the give-and-take of governments and democracy and interest groups.”

It will be critical for discussions to be rooted in factual analysis, and to reject the political agendas that have been marring decision-making in Washington, the panelists said.

“This has been a garbage-in, garbage-out process. It’s a sloppy way to do defense budgeting and defense strategy. ... The defense budget should be based on realistic, sober assessment of threats and the capabilities needed to address those threats. Any other sort of broad, arbitrary number is lazy and ultimately unenforceable,” said Josh Rogin, national security and foreign policy reporter, Foreign Policy magazine and The Cable.

Any realistic resolution will also require balance that focuses on national security, noted Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project.

“The question [of how to budget for defense] is less about defense spending and more about national security spending ... and finding a balanced set of tools that include the hard power tools of weapons systems and military personnel, and also a discussion of a balance between those programs and [diplomacy],” Breen said.

Larry Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, stressed that it is feasible to cut the defense spending, even dramatically, and still maintain a military edge. He pointed out that President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 30 percent after the Korean War, and President Nixon also cut the DOD budget by 30 percent after the Vietnam War. But he conceded that the current mismanagement of spending is unprecedented.

“I’ve been around a long time. ... I’ve never seen [defense budgeting] so badly managed. We’re spending $50 billion on weapons programs that are canceled,” Korb said.

Despite the plausibility of change to the status quo in defense spending, Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of Lexington Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, believes what comes next will continue to be a function of what has already transpired thus far. Any change that may happen in budget policy likely will face repeal once political control is gained by an opposing party – a longtime pattern in Washington that nullifies any planning aimed at a 10-year outlook, he pointed out.

“I think what will end up happening is that we will revert back to the easiest option, which at the moment is borrowing more money. It’s very cheap to do, and cutting things is painful politically, so I think that’s where we’re headed,” Thompson said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 21, 2011 Concerned Citizen OHIO

Congress needs to make cuts to their own salary and benefits instead of being financially irresponsible and then taking it out on the regular Federal Government worker who are on a completely different pay and benefits plan. Congress passes legislation without the approval of the American public and then the President and the Congress pass it when they know it is going to escalate our budget beyond what it has ever done before -- all in the name of progress! Perhaps a few less vacations by the President would reduct our Federal budget! What does everyone think. Whan the we cannot afford a vacation, we stay home. Not the President and his family. There seems to be no regard for the impact to the American people and the difficulties we are having. Let's all live within out means and stop taxing everything because you can! A person who is paying attention and will be voting and watching the elections soon!

Fri, Sep 16, 2011 Fernando

Defense expenditures cut 30% after wars - so does this number actually reflect a cut based on pre-war expenditures or does it mean a cut on post-war levels? I would imagine that during the war you spend more money, so cutting back 30% after spending more means something very different than reducing expenditures 30% below pre-war levels.

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