Congressional failure, military collateral damage

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is unveiled at a ceremony in July 2006 at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. The much-criticized aircraft is $200 billion over budget.
The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is unveiled at a ceremony in July 2006 at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. The much-criticized aircraft is $200 billion over budget. Tribune News Service

U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Denny Heck have discouraging news: The battles over the nation’s military budget are likely to get worse – before they get worse yet.

Heck, speaking with Smith at a JBLM event Friday, warned that partisan squabbles over defense spending could lead to another government shutdown. It’s a strange, arcane dispute. President Obama and the Republican-controlled House aren’t really arguing about how much to spend on defense; they’re arguing about the larger issue of sequestration. Military readiness, caught in the cross-fire, has become collateral damage.

Sequestration, spawned by the 2011 budget impasse between Republicans and Democrats, was designed to cut so recklessly and mindlessly into defense and domestic spending that both parties would rather halt it by compromising on federal deficits. It turned out that they didn’t hate reckless and mindless cuts as much as they hated compromise.

So sequestration took effect, and it has become an automaton gnawing $500 billion out of domestic programs and another $500 billion out of defense. Fortunately, the defense cuts were deferred for a couple years by a Republican and a Democrat who could get along, Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray.

Now House Republicans have approved a 2016 defense budget that sustains the military by feeding an extra $38 billion through an account that funds temporary overseas military operations. This device allowed them keep the sequestration lid on social welfare, education and other non-military programs.

Obama has been adamant that he’ll veto the scheme, and military leaders say they can’t make long-term plans with short-term money in a contingency fund. This is not headed anywhere good. Congress must raise the debt ceiling this fall, setting up a possible showdown with the president. Political grandstanding on the eve of a presidential primaries will add another layer of lunacy.

Sequestration, uncertain military funding and the looming possibility of a shutdown reflect a massive failure to govern. Republicans, who now own both House and Senate, bear heavy responsibility.

The defense budget suffers from another failure, this one nonpartisan. The nation’s military is riddled with wasteful spending that Congress is perfectly aware of and won’t do anything about.

Smith cited a prime example Friday: The United States is operating more military bases than it needs. Bases are expensive, and they are defended ferociously by neighboring communities and the people who represent those communities in Congress.

Congress has solved this problem in the past by creating base-realignment-and-closure commissions that identify unnecessary military installations; after a commission made its recommendations, lawmakers had to accept or reject them in their entirety.

Congress hasn’t authorized a round of base closures since 2005; although closures free up money for real defense priorities, they generate too much political backlash

Political pressure is forcing the Pentagon to pay for other sacred cows, including the cherished-but-obsolete A-10 warplane. The Pentagon itself is responsible for the ridiculously costly and much criticized F-35 fighter aircraft, whose costs are $200 billion over budget.

Between sequestration and the inability to close bases and contain costs, America is attempting to buy an extravagant military on a miser’s budget. It makes no sense, especially when China and Russia are rapidly developing forces specifically designed to challenge the United States.