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Why military budget watchdogs fail, and how they can start to win

Progressives have to shed politically-charged projects and identify budget issues and personalities with bipartisan appeal.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

It’s obvious from this year’s congressional hearings on the defense budget that challenging the Pentagon on core national security issues is a thing of the past. Instead, boosterism is rampant at all levels of seniority, ideologies and parties.

This mentality was on display when the Senate Armed Services Committee held its annual review of President Biden’s budget request. In response to Biden’s budget of $827 billion for total national defense spending, a new post-World War II high, a conservative Republican from North Dakota named Kevin Cramer echoed the senior Members when he told Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley that “we hope we can give you a lot more than you asked for.”  

Meanwhile, liberal Democrat Mazie Hirono from Hawaii stated her concern that the budget request did not include enough amphibious warfare ships. Her evidence for that was clear and simple: the Commandant of the Marine Corps wanted more. These two were typical. Member after member of the committee signaled their desire for more spending and groped for Austin's or Milley’s consent for whatever policy or program notion the member might have.

The officials’ responses were revealing. Saying he appreciated the $25 billion the Committee added last year and that DoD now needed more “buying power,” Austin veiled his approval for more spending and added programs. Milley, on the other hand, bordered on insubordination toward Biden: While the President had specifically ordered a nuclear cruise missile taken out of the budget, Milley unambiguously stated that he wants it back in, and he tickled the impulse to spend more any time he was prompted.

Another indicator that Biden has been marginalized is this year’s version of the “unfunded priority lists” of program after program that each of the military services want added to the official budget. Thus far, these lists comprise $21 billion of programs that could not pass muster in top level budget reviews. Put together inside the military services, beyond the purview of the Office of Management and Budget and Austin’s bureaucracy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, these extra-curricula lists are an overt message to Congress: here’s what we didn’t get from Biden; you should add them. 

Also this year, a gigantic, speciously calculated addition will be made based on inflation. Republicans and many Democrats want about $100 billion added to make up for more “real” — inflation adjusted — growth. But none of the inflation rates being thrown around are accurate for 2023; economists’ predictions for future inflation are almost always wrong. It would make sense only to calculate 2023 inflation when it is actually occurring and make an adjustment at that point in time. Instead, the big spenders want to make the adjustment as soon as possible, while rates are high.

The opposition inside Congress is as weak as Biden’s control of his own Pentagon officials. In the recent past the Progressive wing of the Democrats have been the only palpable opposition to rising defense spending, but they can get at best only a third of the votes in the House or Senate. 

Behind the impulse for more spending is the overwhelming consensus that there is safety in doing whatever the Pentagon wants. 

History amply shows that going along with that is second rate, not smart, politics. In the spring of 1941, before America entered World War Two, an obscure midwest Senator was offended by the massive waste he personally uncovered as US military spending ramped up. The White House fobbed off his concerns; so Senator Harry Truman went back to the Senate and formed a special committee to exercise oversight. He made it effective by making his committee bipartisan and staffed by highly independent professionals, led by a chairman who, while always polite, was totally unafraid to show up political generals, self-interested corporate executives and feckless journalists.

 Truman castigated inferior US “pursuit” (fighter) aircraft, defective armor plate, and a whole universe of problems that needed fixing to help the war effort. A legend resulted; he was so successful politically that the President who had snubbed him in 1941 asked him to join the 1944 Democratic ticket as the vice presidential candidate. 

In 1985 a bipartisan group of Senators, led by conservative Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, engineered an overwhelming 18-4 majority on the Republican-led Senate Budget Committee to freeze Pentagon spending at the height of the Cold War and the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The Pentagon’s budget then went down by ultimately $50 billion, bringing successive negative growth for five years.

The driving force was revelation after revelation documenting stunningly excessive costs and test-failing weapons advocated by the Pentagon and  — up to then — most in Congress.

Today, there is no faction in Congress to oppose effectively hyper-expensive, deeply flawed weapons, such as the F-35, Littoral Combat Ship, K-46 air-tanker, Ford Class aircraft carrier, and Zumwalt destroyer.  At this year’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, there was only a single senator asking non-fawning questions. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called out Pentagon officials undermining their own President’s budget and grasping for that $100 billion increase. 

Why are such members so alone?  They embrace a self-defeating approach. A primary reason, they constantly argue, to reduce the defense budget is to enable more spending on their own political favorites, such as climate change and the “Build Back Better” social spending agenda. An instant poison pill for any Republican and some moderate Democrats, it is a rationale designed, whether intentionally or not, for exclusion of others — and subtraction, not addition, of votes. 

This is hardly the approach that Harry Truman and Senators Grassley and Hollings used in the past. It is also not the approach that over 120 Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate used in the 1980s and 90s to legislate multiple meaningful reforms, such as better weapons testing, slowing the revolving door, and rewarding whistleblowers.

 In each case there was a very conscious effort to select issues that were not left-right politically charged ones. Moreover, when they appreciated that the Senate Armed Services Committee was populated with apologists for the Pentagon, they set up an alternate forum: a bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Military Reform Caucus that held its own hearings, legislative mark-ups and strategy sessions. 

None of this history is going to repeat itself in today’s hyper-partisan Congress. But that does not mean that those lessons of history cannot be used to crack open new opportunities. If politicians like Senator Warren want to become a political force, they will have to bridge the partisan/ideological divide. An instant majority is not going to occur, but even a small working group of Members from across the divides will surprise the herd and make itself felt as a force to be dealt with — if they can find the issues and personalities that bring them together rather than split them apart. 

They also need a platform to investigate, analyze and legislate. There is no better model than what Truman created: selected bipartisan, genuinely motivated members with a professional staff independent of the object of their investigations. 

Back in April 1984, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Research and Engineering, Richard DeLauer, complained that the then-Congressional Military Reform Caucus was “slicing [the Pentagon] up into little bitty pieces, creating motherhood issues … and then getting legislation passed.”  In the Reagan era, no one thought it was in the cards for any but the Pentagon and its political advocates to run things as they pleased. They were wrong then, and they should be made wrong now.

Photo: Keith J Finks via shutterstock.com
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