Eyeing the Pentagon budget for cost savings

EYEING THE PENTAGON BUDGET FOR COST SAVINGS…. It’s not common to find cabinet secretaries calling for less money for their department, which helps make Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent efforts are the more admirable.

There has been a feeding frenzy at the Pentagon budget trough since the 9/11 attacks. Pretty much anything the military chiefs and industry lobbyists pitched, Congress approved — no matter the cost and no matter if the weapons or programs were over budget, underperforming or no longer needed in a post-cold-war world.

Annual defense spending has nearly doubled in the last decade to $549 billion. That does not include the cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which this year will add $159 billion.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has now vowed to do things differently. In two recent speeches, he declared that the nation cannot keep spending at this rate and that the defense budget “gusher” has been “turned off and will stay off for a good period of time.” He vowed that going forward all current programs and future spending requests will receive “unsparing” scrutiny.

Gates hasn’t recommended cuts to the Pentagon budget, but he has suggested slowing its growth, trimming the bureaucracy, and eliminating specific ineffective and/or unnecessary weapons systems. Given the nation’s larger budget challenges, the Defense Secretary believes existing military spending is simply unsustainable — and he’s right.

Congress, however, doesn’t quite see it that way.

Lawmakers from both parties are poised to override Gates and fund the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — two weapons systems the defense secretary has been trying to cut from next year’s budget. They have also made clear they will ignore Gates’s pleas to hold the line on military pay raises and health-care costs, arguing that now is no time to skimp on pay and benefits for troops who have been fighting two drawn-out wars.

The competing agendas could lead to a major clash between Congress and the Obama administration this summer. Gates has repeatedly said he will urge President Obama to veto any defense spending bills that include money for the F-35’s extra engine or the C-17, both of which he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate last year.

Members of Congress, rhetoric about spending cuts and eliminating waste notwithstanding, recognize the political benefits associated with more spending on Defense programs. The Pentagon, then, is the only part of the government that asks Congress for less money, and gets more than it requested.

Gates, to his enormous credit, had considerable success on this front last year, getting the kind of spending cuts the Bush/Cheney administration couldn’t. This year may prove more difficult, but I’m glad the administration, and the Pentagon in particular, is tackling this effort.