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Robert Gates' Budget Dance

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As Congress and the administration try to agree on reductions in federal spending, in order to avoid a government shutdown, the question about reducing the baseline defense budget for FY 2011 and FY 2012 has emerged as a point of contention. To understand why it should not be, it is necessary to go back three years.

In February 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requested that Congress appropriate $518 billion for the base defense budget (exclusive of war costs) for FY 2009, the last budget of the Bush administration. In presenting that budget, Gates said that if that amount were approved, and no changes were made to the defense program, the defense budget would need to rise to $533 billion in FY 2011 and $542 billion in FY 2012. At the time of Gates' request, the base budget was $137 billion or 36 percent higher than in FY 2001, the first Bush budget, and the federal deficit was $459 billion.

Three years later, after making what he claimed were $300 billion in program reductions and $178 billion in efficiencies savings, Gates argued that if Congress does not appropriate at least $540 billion for FY 2011 the results would be "catastrophic" and that he needed at least $553 billion for FY 2012.

Moreover, because the budget deficit for FY 2011 was now projected to be $1.6 trillion, and since defense consumes more than half of the discretionary budget and about 20 percent of the overall budget, groups like President Obama's deficit commission and Congressman Barney Frank's Sustainable Defense Task Force were saying that significant defense cuts had to be part of the solution to deal with the exploding federal deficit. Gates also called these efforts catastrophic and claimed they are exercises in math and had no strategic component.

What happened? Why is the base defense budget higher than was projected and higher after Gates made his reductions? The answer is simple. Most of the cuts he claimed credit for were not reductions. All Gates did was try to take credit for decisions that had already been made. For example, Secretary Rumsfeld had decided that the Air Force would be allowed to purchase 183 F-22 aircraft. In his FY 2010 request, Gates ended the program at 187 (he snuck 4 more into the war supplemental).

Similarly, Gates plowed the vast majority of his efficiency reductions into other programs that were not in the 5 year plan he presented to Congress in February 2008.

Gates' claim that reductions of this size are divorced from strategy is really the pot calling the kettle black. His own Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) does not make any tradeoffs or lay down a strategy. In fact, it tries to be all things to all people.

Since the defense budget consumes as much of the federal budget as the Social Security program and has actually grown faster than Social Security since 2001, it is natural that individuals and groups concerned with deficit reduction would scrutinize it. Indeed, the president's deficit reduction commission proposed reducing defense expenditures by $378 billion over the FY 2012-16 period.

If their reductions were implemented in full the U.S. baseline defense spending for FY 2012-16 would "fall" from $2.9 trillion to $2.6 trillion and still would amount to more than $500 billion a year. Even if one accounts for inflation, this amount is higher than we spent on average in the Cold War, higher than what the administration of George W. Bush spent in its eight years in office, and five times more than the Chinese spend.

Moreover, these reductions have a strategic component. They recommend that Gates adopt the proposals of groups he established to evaluate military pay and benefits, including health care, reduce our troops in Europe, and develop a counterterrorism strategy to deal with violent extremists like Al Qaeda, ideas that Gates himself embraced in an article in Foreign Affairs and a recent speech at West Point.

According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the biggest threat to our national security is the exploding federal deficit. While reducing the defense budget by itself will not solve the problem, it must be part of the solution. By freezing non-defense discretionary spending, the President claims he will save $400 billion over the next decade. Implementing his own deficit commission's plan for defense would save twice as much and allow Congress to pass a budget to keep from shutting the government down.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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