As "deficit fever" mounts in Washington, a number of task forces have emerged to put forward their own proposals for how to address the deficit problem. These include the president's Deficit Commission, the Domenici-Rivlin Commission, and proposals by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and former Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern (whose proposal on Pentagon cuts adopts the recommendations of the Sustainable Defense Task Force). One common theme that runs throughout these proposals is the need to make substantial cuts in Pentagon spending, with the high end of the plans coming in at about $1 trillion over 10 years. By contrast, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is suggesting $100 billion in overhead savings that could be plowed back into other parts of the Pentagon budget -- not a cut, but a shift.
But even if the Obama administration opts for real cuts in its FY2012 budget proposal, to be formally released early next year, there will be another obstacle to be addressed before real savings can be reaped via Pentagon spending reductions: pork barrel politics. And one of the most formidable practitioners of that dark art is Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), the incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon was quick to call the concept of cutting Pentagon spending to address the deficit a "non-starter" in a piece he wrote for USA Today.
The late Sen. Henry Jackson was often referred to as the "Senator from Boeing" because of his prodigious efforts on behalf of his home state defense contractor. By similar logic, we may think of "Buck" McKeon as "the representative from Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin." Not as catchy, but a fair summary of his potential role in fending off cuts in systems built by these major contractors, each of which has a substantial presence in his district.
Among the weapons-related sites in McKeon's district are Lockheed Martin's "Skunk Works," an advanced research facility that developed stealth technology, among other innovations; Northrop Grumman plants that have worked on the B-2 bomber and unmanned aerial vehicles (popularly referred to as drones); and Edwards Air Force base, one of the largest military bases in the continental United States.
McKeon's district received a staggering $1.6 billion in military contracts in FY2008, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. And the military contractors in McKeon's district have made sure to take good care of their powerful ally. His top three campaign contributors in the most recent election cycle were Lockheed Martin ($51,000), Northrop Grumman ($50,000), and Boeing ($27,000). Even more important than campaign cash, each company supports large numbers of jobs in the district, with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman leading the way with 3,300 jobs and 2,300 jobs, respectively.
In service of his district and his sense of what the Pentagon should be spending its money on, McKeon co-chairs the Congressional Unmanned Vehicle Caucus, whose goal is to "support budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security UAV capability."
Given all of these connections, how likely is McKeon to sit still for Pentagon spending cuts? And if he doesn't, can they be implemented anyway?
The answer to question one is "not likely" (to put it mildly), but the second question deserves a qualified "yes." As the wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan (as they will, albeit not as fast as many of us would prefer) and deficit pressures continue to be felt in all areas of the budget, even pork-barrel practitioners like McKeon may find themselves fighting a losing battle -- saving a system here or a contract there, but not blocking reductions in overall Pentagon spending. This is how it happened after Vietnam and after the Cold War, and it can happen again, if advocates of lower Pentagon spending make their voices heard. But McKeon will be a formidable adversary.