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Hold the Line on Defense Spending

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Another Federal budget season approaches and once again, pundits are attempting use it as an excuse to paint Democrats as weak on national security. In fact, reports that the White House has decided to cut the defense budget in Fiscal Year 2010 are nonsense. If the reports are accurate, the White House has actually proposed increasing defense spending by about 3%, which would represent budget discipline at Defense that has been sorely absent for the past 8 years.

The Pentagon is playing a standard budget game and the Defense "cut" claim being made is simply false. It is true that the purportedly proposed $527 billion will be less than the "wish list" the Pentagon put together last year. But the plan had no formal standing, and was clearly intended as a setup for the incoming administration, no matter who won the 2008 election. If the military "bid high," then anything the White House did to provide less growth could be called a cut.

Despite instructions by the Bush White House that they would not send a federal budget to Congress before they left office, DOD went ahead and prepared one anyway. The resulting document was an unconstrained effort, driven by the military services, to lay out the maximum amount of funding they desired. It created an appetite for more than $580 billion in FY 2010, or roughly 14% more than the base defense budget Congress provided for this year.

This phony "cut" debate conceals an underlying reality: there has basically been no discipline in defense budgeting for the last eight years. In FY2001, the defense appropriation was $315 billion, including supplemental funding. In FY 2009, including the supplementals, defense will actually receive nearly $650 billion, or more than twice as much as it did eight budgets ago.

When DOD's resources are fully counted, they reflect historically unprecedented growth. Going back to World War II, our annual defense spending now dwarfs any previous period in history. It is more than the defense spending of every other country in the world combined. It has provided new generations of aircraft, ships, missiles, military vehicles, led to significant growth in the projected costs of current and future weapons programs, providing an almost unprecedented fiscal boon to the manufacturers of military equipment.

And it has happened not just because of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but because funding ostensibly dedicated to those operations helped take the wheels off the normal scrutiny and discipline the defense budget undergoes. Those war funds are a big part of the problem. Emergency budget requests are not subject to the same internal Pentagon budget discipline. They have not been scrubbed by the White House in the same way as the base budget. And the Congress, lacking time and political will, tends to rubber stamp them.

Now the nation is faced with an unprecedented fiscal and economic crisis. The war in Iraq is about to wind down and in Afghanistan, operations are not yet winding up to the same degree. Neither are they part of the base budget.

Nobody, Democrat or Republican, will argue with the underlying proposition that our military forces should have the funding they require. But all programs, agencies and budgets are always fiscally constrained. It should be so at DOD, as well. And what is required should be driven by policy, not by service appetite. Policy is made in the White House. When the services drew up the "wish list" the White House had already abandoned policy-making and the new team is still shaping its policy.

It is appropriate to hold the line on defense, provide basic growth this year, and delve into the work of defining policy -- shaping the appropriate role for our civilian and military institutions in executing the new strategy for U.S. international engagement. The White House has to coordinate that review; the State Dept. needs to weigh in, and DOD needs to carry out its regular Quadrennial Defense Review. If there are genuine, policy-driven, defense requirements in the near term for an Iraq withdrawal and a deployment to Afghanistan, those need to be tightly defined and supplemental funding requested.

But the base budget for defense, and anything that was not truly emergency, needs to be disciplined. It is time for "regular order" in the way DOD does its budget. And the guidance the White House sent out is an excellent start.

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Gordon Adams is a Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993-97, he was the senior White House official for national security budgeting.