McCain Needs to Face Reality on Pentagon Spending

03/13/2015 11:07 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015
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It's no secret that John McCain wants more money for the Pentagon. He has been railing against the caps on the department's budget from the moment they were created over three years ago. The rhetoric may be getting more shrill, but the goal remains the same. The question is whether he is in a better position to do something about it now that he is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Earlier this week, in his latest attempt to make the case for higher Pentagon spending, McCain joined his House counterpart, House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), on the pages of the Wall Street Journal to decry "The Pentagon's Dangerous Defense Cuts." The piece trots out the usual arguments for throwing more money at the Pentagon, but it is no more persuasive than McCain's prior pleas for higher spending.

The first problem with McCain's argument is that it mischaracterizes current levels of Pentagon spending, asserting that the amounts allowed under current law would represent a $1 trillion reduction over 10 years. This is not the case. In fact, Pentagon spending is going up. The Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation's latest briefing book on the Pentagon budget notes that even under the caps, the Pentagon's base budget is slated to receive more money this year than it did last year, and to continue rising through the end of this decade and beyond. There was a small course correction in Fiscal Year 2013, when the caps brought the Pentagon budget down by a little over 6 percent. But after that the trend has been onward and upward. The misleading figure of "$1 trillion in cuts" is based on comparing current spending projections to the Pentagon's unrealistic wish list, not to actual spending levels.

The second flaw in the McCain/Thornberry thesis is their claim that current spending levels are not sufficient to address new challenges like the rise of ISIS and the Russian intervention in Ukraine. At roughly half a trillion per year, the Pentagon has more than enough funding to deal with these or any other genuine threats that are likely to emerge over the next few years. And the half trillion dollar figure doesn't even count the billions of dollars slated for items like nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy and a bloated $50-billion-plus war budget. This brings the total figure available under current law to $586 billion. Yet direct spending on fighting ISIS is proposed at $5.3 billion this year, less than 1 percent of the total resources available for national defense. Adding $500 million for training Syrian rebels, $1.3 billion in additional funds to train and equip Iraqi forces, and a just under $1 billion in aid to European allies still leaves the number for dealing with the two biggest new challenges to U.S. security at under 2 percent of available funds.

The figures cited above also fail to account for huge amounts of waste and unnecessary overhead at the Pentagon. As I have noted elsewhere, the Pentagon doesn't need more spending; it needs more spending discipline. The department cannot pass a simple audit, meaning that it doesn't have accurate information on basic issues like how many spare parts it has in its inventory. And the Pentagon employs 800,000 civilian employees and over 700,000 private contractors. Scaling back in this area alone would save tens of billions of dollars that could be applied to areas like pilot training that directly serve the needs of our armed forces. And there would be billions left over for other purposes.

Whether or not their arguments make sense, how likely are McCain, Thornberry and their allies to get tens of billions of additional funding for the Pentagon? The chairs of the budget committees in both the House and the Senate have indicated that they will mark up total spending in their agenda-setting resolutions at the levels required by current law. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey), Chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, agrees: "[W]e need to do the job the law requires us to do. We are bound to follow the law until instructed otherwise."

Lifting the budget caps would require Republicans to agree to tax increases, and Democrats to sign off on reductions in entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. Overheated rhetoric about the need for more Pentagon funding will not change this fundamental political reality. It's possible that a "mini-deal" that partially lifts the caps could be achieved through budgetary sleight of hand like drawing on unobligated Pentagon funds and making modest "revenue enhancements." (They can't be called taxes or few Republicans will vote for them.) But such a deal would come nowhere near the astronomical increases McCain and company are seeking. Nor is it likely to reach the cap-busting levels contained in President Obama's own Pentagon budget submission. All of which suggests that the Pentagon needs to craft a realistic budget that aligns with current law rather than engaging in budget fantasies that may never come to be.

As for Senator McCain, he would do the taxpayers a great service if he focused more energy on improving how the Pentagon spends its already massive budget, and less on how to throw more money at it.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.