Putting Pentagon spending on the table

PUTTING PENTAGON SPENDING ON THE TABLE…. As we’ve seen repeatedly, the Pentagon budget has been deemed entirely off-limits for too many policymakers, despite the fact that the United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. For a Congress so concerned about deficits that it’s willing to let unemployment benefits expire for struggling families, it’s hardly outrageous to think at least some budget savings can be found in the enormous Pentagon budget.

This week has offered a little encouragement on this front. Center-right Democrats, who’ve historically joined Republicans in holding defense spending sacrosanct, are starting to signal flexibility on the issue.

Now that opposition is softening amid rising concern about the nation’s fiscal future and the fact that defense makes up more than half the country’s discretionary spending.

“We are going to have to adopt the philosophy that nothing can be off the table,” said Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of the first members of the class of 2008 to be admitted into the Blue Dog Coalition. “And that is increasingly becoming the dominant view of the Blue Dogs.”

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a centrist who is the House’s top defense appropriator, believes his panel can reduce the Pentagon’s budget top line somewhat without affecting military readiness, according to Dicks’s chief of staff, George Behan.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) delivered a widely-noticed speech this week on the budget to the Third Way think tank, which also raised the specter of defense cuts, and which came and went without significant outrage from any of the usual suspects.

Not all of the news on this front has been heartening. Blue Dog Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said he wants to leave exorbitant Pentagon spending alone, and instead look for “cuts to social programs.”

But there are nevertheless signs of progress. Idaho’s Minnick, arguably the most conservative Democrat in Congress, said more Blue Dogs were coming around to the notion that defense could not be considered a “sacred cow” by default.

Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, conceded this week, “The Pentagon’s budget itself is not working right, so there are billions of dollars of waste you can get out of the Pentagon, lots of procurement waste. We’re buying some weapons systems I would argue you don’t need anymore.”

I’ll believe it when I see it, but there are at least some indications that Pentagon spending will be on the table the next time policymakers are looking at the budget with scissors in their hands.

That would clearly be a step in the right direction — Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, publicly and repeatedly, that the United States can’t keep spending such vast amounts of money on the military indefinitely. If deficit hawks are going to be taken seriously, they’ll eventually have to agree.