A War Plan Against Mil­i­tary Bud­get Tricks

The pres­i­dent should veto Congress’s de­fense spend­ing scheme as it now stands

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - BLOOMBERG VIEW -

For the sec­ond year in a row, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is poised to veto Congress’s an­nual de­fense leg­is­la­tion. For the sec­ond year in row, he’s jus­ti­fied in do­ing so.

While the con­gres­sional ap­proach has many prob­lems— in­clud­ing a ban on trans­fer­ring prison­ers from Guan­tanamo Bay—one of the most egre­gious is a bud­getary gim­mick: The pack­age ap­proved by the House on June 11 raids the mil­i­tary’s emer­gency war fund to pay for nor­mal Pen­tagon op­er­a­tions.

The so-called Over­seas Con­tin­gency Op­er­a­tions money is sup­posed to be used for the fight­ing in Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East. In­stead, be­cause the money isn’t sub­ject to the spend­ing caps set by last year’s bi­par­ti­san bud­get deal, the House has sim­ply re­al­lo­cated $16 bil­lion of the $60 bil­lion fund. Some of this spend­ing seems more about sav­ing do­mes­tic jobs than mil­i­tary readi­ness.

Not only is the move fool­hardy—the fund could run out by May 1 un­less the new pres­i­dent makes an emer­gency re­quest—but it is also un­nec­es­sary. Trim­ming $16 bil­lion from the $600 bil­lion Pen­tagon bud­get, with­out hurt­ing vi­tal mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, shouldn’t be that hard.

This isn’t hy­per­bole. A few cal­cu­la­tions, based on pub­licly avail­able sources, show how it might be done.

Can­cel­ing the House’s plan to pur­chase ad­di­tional (and buggy) F-35 jets, as well as un­nec­es­sary F/A-18 Hor­net fight­ers and Black Hawk he­li­copters, would save about $6.9 bil­lion. Dis­band­ing one of the Navy’s car­rier-group air wings, which hasn’t been de­ployed since 2011 and the Pen­tagon has asked to shut down—would save $200 mil­lion. Re­duc­ing per­son­nel by about 37,000—again as re­quested by the Pen­tagon, which has said the move would al­low the ser­vices to bet­ter train and equip the re­main­ing forces—would save about $3.25 bil­lion. De­lay­ing and pos­si­bly can­cel­ing the pur­chase of two new lit­toral com­bat ships—one of the worst-man­aged ac­qui­si­tions in mil­i­tary his­tory—and slow­ing down the con­struc­tion of other craft

would save about $3.1 bil­lion. De­lay­ing non-ur­gent up­grades of Abrams tanks would save about $558 mil­lion. And putting off the re­pair of some di­lap­i­dated build­ings on mil­i­tary bases—or, bet­ter yet, de­mol­ish­ing them—would save $2.4 bil­lion.

That all adds up to $16.4 bil­lion. As the House and Se­nate meet to rec­on­cile their sep­a­rate bud­get plans, they should feel free to make emen­da­tions to this list.

Of course, these sorts of short-term sav­ings are pal­try com­pared to long-term plans to spend $35 bil­lion on three new su­per­car­ri­ers, $55 bil­lion on a new long-range bomber, and $350 bil­lion re­build­ing the nu­clear ar­se­nal. But if Congress could at least show re­straint from dip­ping into the war-fight­ing fund, it would set a prece­dent for smarter de­ci­sion-mak­ing to save big money down the road.

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