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The Pentagon and sequestration’s doubly bad policy

One of the biggest battles facing Congress this year is whether to keep the budget caps and cuts known as sequestration in place, and one of the most curious features of the sequester is the insistence on equal cuts for defense and non-defense programs. President Obama’s proposed budget does little to escape this framework, and would end the sequester with a dollar for dollar infusion of funding to defense and non-defense. This lock step approach turns the budget process into a massive quid pro quo, where national security and domestic priorities are traded without regard to the nation’s actual needs and priorities.

Rather than mindlessly increasing funds across the board, the nation desperately needs a serious process that asks, both for national security and domestic well-being: what are our nation’s most pressing needs? Are current funding levels adequate to meet those needs, and if not, how much more do we really need to spend?

{mosads}“Defense discretionary spending,” construed as the Budget Control Act definition of Department of Defense, nuclear weapons and other spending, is proposed at $561 billion for 2016, and that doesn’t include the additional $51 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations, which is not subject to sequestration cuts or budget caps. It does include a Pentagon base budget of $534 billion – the highest in history.

Is this money well spent? In Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense nominee Ash Carter Wednesday said “[c]rafting a reality-based national security strategy is simply impossible under the mindless mechanism of sequestration.” He wasn’t just talking about sequestration’s notorious and dangerous across-the-board cuts. As Carter acknowledged, “I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be.”

Meanwhile, increased defense spending has been blindly offered to balance an equal amount of increased investment in job creation and training, education, climate change, and other priorities combined, with little in the way of serious challenges to defense spending levels. Given the baseline of 54 percent of discretionary funding for defense purposes in 2015, it would take a relatively small shift from this dollar-for-dollar framework to reallocate funding for major improvements in job creation and training, education, health care, climate change or other priorities.

The president’s community college proposal, estimated to cost $60 billion over ten years, is a case in point.  For the $7.5 billion sunk into the F-35 in fiscal year 2014 alone, less than two percent of the Defense department base budget for that year, we could have instead provided four-year public university scholarships to 200,000 students.

Similarly, the president has proposed to invest $478 billion for infrastructure over six years, an initiative to address dangerously failing infrastructure in many places, and to create jobs at the same time. The American Society of Civil Engineers has said that our nation requires infrastructure investments of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to avoid serious consequences and degradation. From now through 2020, our government is expected to spend approximately $3.5 trillion on defense. Given that the proposed $478 billion investment in infrastructure is unlikely to reach fruition, it’s clear that the reliability of our infrastructure just doesn’t rate as a priority compared to defense.

This year, Obama has proposed a $1.5 billion increase to Head Start, as part of his clear prioritization of early education and investment in equal opportunity and America’s future workers, along with his more ambitious and perennially unfunded Preschool for All initiative. Yet in 2014, we budgeted $2.4 billion on the Littoral Combat Ship, a pet project that experts say is ill-suited for actual battle.

It’s not just a question of national security being the primary focus of the federal government, a priority with which many Americans would agree. We know that there is waste and inefficiency in defense spending, both from the evidence and from the mouths of insiders like Ash Carter. Carter’s reference to “a 50% increase [to $330 billion] to buy 400 fewer airplanes” for the F-35, citing “massive cost overruns, and egregious acquisition failures,” comes to mind. The insistence on justifying any other investments by balancing them with increased military spending in the face of clear defense waste and inefficiencies is a peculiar, and ultimately destructive, oddity of American politics.

Reality-based policies across the spectrum, from defense to non-defense, are threatened by the idea that there is an inherent correct ratio between national security and all other priorities. Here’s what it might look like if we took an honest look at what our nation most needs.

Before signing on to increase Pentagon spending to its highest level ever, Congress should insist on a serious effort to identify and address wasteful spending by the Pentagon. Among major federal agencies, the Pentagon is the only one never to submit, let alone pass, a full audit. Pentagon leaders don’t make a good case for Americans trusting their judgment when they request to step up production of the F-35, the beleaguered jet fighter that has proven to be a massive drain on resources with no end in sight. This sort of accountability is no more, or less, than what is expected of other federal programs. A recently introduced bipartisan Senate bill would create increasing penalties for each year the Pentagon fails to meet its legally mandated deadline of being fully auditable by 2017, bringing the sort of accountability that is badly lacking from the Pentagon today.

Americans’ priorities are clear from repeated polling: they want a strong national defense. But they also want serious investment in the economy and jobs, education, health care, and deficit reduction, all of which suffer when cuts to defense become impossible and every investment on domestic priorities comes with the double price tag of an equal increase for defense.

Congress will certainly take up the question of what to do about the sequester this budget season: whether to comply with Budget Control Act caps, or ease, or lift them. Part of that process should be to return to budget negotiations where each priority must stand on its own merit, with any spending quid pro quos to be negotiated rather than predetermined. It’s time for defense spending to answer for itself.

Koshgarian is research director at National Priorities Project,


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