06/17/2016 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2017

Stop Playing Games With The Pentagon Budget

Hisham Ibrahim via Getty Images

Defending the United States and its allies is serious business. That's all the more reason Congress should stop playing games with Pentagon spending. A good place to start would be to put aside proposals to add billions to the department's already ample budget. The Senate took a step in the right direction earlier this month when it beat back an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would have added $18 billion in Pentagon spending beyond the amount agreed to in last year's bipartisan budget deal.

A good place to start would be to put aside proposals to add billions to the department's already ample budget.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives has shown no such restraint. During the consideration of the defense authorization act, House Armed Services Committee chair Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) pushed through a proposal to steal $18 billion from the war budget and use it to pay for pet projects that the Pentagon hasn't even asked for, like 11 additional F-35s and 14 more F/A-18s. This raid on the war budget is fine for Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the builders of the F-35 and the F-18. But what happens when the war budget runs out of funds to support the troops in the field? Thornberry's answer is to let the next administration worry about it. The House inserted a $16 billion raid on the war budget in its appropriations bill, setting up a fight over the issue in the House/Senate conference committee on Pentagon spending that will convene later this year.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has denounced Thornberry's maneuver in no uncertain terms, calling it a "terrible distraction" that "undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles friends, and emboldens foes."

To add insult to injury, Thornberry and his colleagues claim that they are robbing the war budget because there are insufficient funds for readiness -- the training and maintenance activities needed to sustain our armed forces. Yet an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight has found that the net result of Thornberry's proposal would be to cut operations and maintenance - the funding source for readiness activities -- by over $11 billion.

Advocates of higher Pentagon outlays claim that the rapid pace of change in the world -- from the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino to the continuing threats posed by ISIS and Russian aggression in Ukraine -- has rendered last year's budget deal obsolete. This is a questionable proposition. With total resources of over $600 billion proposed for the Department of Defense and related agencies, the Pentagon's FY 2017 request has allocated just $7.5 billion in direct funding to fighting ISIS, and an additional $3.4 billion to the European Reassurance Initiative, the primary U.S. response to Russia's military moves along its borders. Even allowing for indirect expenditures devoted towards these purposes, ISIS and Ukraine account for a modest portion of the Pentagon's budget.

The truth about the current level of Pentagon spending is not that it is inadequate, but that there are tens of billions in unnecessary expenditures tucked away in the department's budget. A coalition of 17 government watchdog groups has identified $38.6 billion in cuts that can be made without compromising our security. Items targeted for cuts include the F-35 combat aircraft, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and the Pentagon's overuse of private service contractors, which now number more than 600,000. Taking even some of these steps would eliminate the need for engaging in budget maneuvers of the kind being promoted by Rep. Thornberry.

Unlike its counterparts, the Senate Appropriations Committee was able to find $15 billion in savings in the Pentagon budget. The committee's action shows that with a little bit of effort, a way can be found to stave off the large increases called for by Rep. Thornberry and Sen. McCain.

Adding billions of dollars to the budget beyond what the Pentagon has asked for is wrong in its own right, but it is also troubling because it is just the latest example of undisciplined budgeting on the part of the Congress and the Pentagon. Hopefully the House and Senate conferees will eliminate the war budget shell game when they meet later this year. If not, President Obama should follow through on his threat to veto any bill that diverts funds from the war budget to pay for non-war related projects.

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