The White House and Republican leaders may be locked in a bruising battle over how to slash the long-term deficit, but defense cuts seem to be off the table. This week, House lawmakers are moving rapidly toward approving a $649 billion defense appropriation bill that would boost baseline Pentagon spending by 3.4 percent in 2012.
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Republicans and Democrats alike talk a good game when it comes to defense spending. But when push comes to shove, they have a hard time cutting the Department of Defense’s budget out of fear of appearing soft on national security. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last week won the presidential medal freedom, has used his bully pulpit to warn against sharp defense cuts, as has former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
While President Obama requested even more money in his proposed budget than what is now in the appropriations bill, he said during the current debt ceiling negotiations that he would like to see $400 billion in cuts over the next decade. However, that’s not in the cards this week.
In addition to a 1.6 percent pay increase for service personnel, the fine print of the bill includes dozens of projects favored by individual legislators whose districts benefit from Pentagon spending. The legislation passed the House Appropriations Committee in mid-June with near unanimous bi-partisan support.
Despite a planned troop drawdown in Afghanistan, the size of the military – 1.4 million men and women in uniform and an estimated 800,000 civilian personnel – will remain essentially unchanged next year, according to the legislation. There is also a major increase in defense spending on medical research, much of it earmarked for cancer cure investigations unrelated to health problems that are specific to the military.
“The Pentagon budget is still continuing to go up while every other agency of the federal government is going down,” said Laura Peterson, who follows the defense budget for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group. “National security exceptionalism is still at work.”
Next year’s proposed increase, funded entirely by the planned reduction in war spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, has drawn fire from the fringes of both political parties. In recent weeks, a handful of Tea Party-backed Republicans on the right have joined liberals in Congress, who traditionally back curbs on military spending, in opposing the bill.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from Florida, gave voice to liberal frustrations last month when the House voted to take up the appropriations legislation after the July 4th recess. “When Belle Glade, Florida, in the congressional district that I serve, comes looking for less than $1 million to fix their infrastructure and provide jobs for their local residents, the Republican majority has a whole long list of reasons of why we can’t afford it,” he said. “And yet today, I see $5 billion for two submarines, $2 billion for one destroyer, and $6 billion for 32 fighter jets.”
Spreading the Wealth, State by State
Despite those protests, the basic thrust of the legislation has garnered broad support from the mainstream of both political parties. That is in part due to the Pentagon strategy of spreading military spending around the country.
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For instance, the legislation includes $453.3 million for refurbishing 70 M1A2 Abrams tanks in Lima, Ohio. A coalition of legislators led by Ohioans Jim Jordan, a Republican from Lima, and Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, earmarked $272 million more than the Pentagon had requested in order to keep the plant, which employs about 1,000, operating throughout next year.
Overall, the bill includes a $107.6 billion for new hardware, which is a 5.4 percent increase over this year’s spending. A number of major projects included in the bill had been identified as ripe for either cuts or slowdowns by the president’s deficit commission and other watchdog groups.
The procurement portion of the bill includes:
• $15.1 billion for the Navy’s ship-building program, which is enough to launch ten new ships next year from shipyards in Portsmouth, Va., Kittery, Maine, Brementon, Wash., and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The overall budget will support a 288-ship Navy, an increase of four ships over 2011.
• $5.9 billion to build 32 F-35 jets and $2.7 billion for continued development of the advanced fighter, which is slated to replace the military’s entire jet fleet over the next several decades at a cost approaching $400 billion. Some analysts say the program could be scaled back by slowing purchases and substituting updated versions of older, cheaper planes.
• $2.5 billion for 35 new Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, that can take off and land like helicopters. Local legislators from just outside Philadelphia, where it is built have beaten back repeated efforts to curtail a program that was bedeviled by technical problems in its early days. The Osprey’s use in rescuing a downed pilot in Libya “has laid to rest all doubts about its operational effectiveness,” the report that accompanied the appropriations bill asserted. The report also called for “a new multiyear procurement contract for fiscal year 2013 and beyond.”
Legislators reserved one of the biggest increases in the bill for medical research, which jumped by $523 million to $1.2 billion. Over a decade ago, breast cancer advocates used the Pentagon budget as a vehicle for stepping up research in a field they felt was being inadequately funded by the National Cancer Institute, which is the largest institute within the National Institutes of Health with a $5 billion budget. Next year, breast cancer research under the legislation will receive $120 million, only slightly below the $125 billion the Pentagon will spend on researching traumatic brain injuries and psychological health.
The Pentagon also has earmarked funds for prostate, ovarian and lung cancer research, and this, if the legislation passes, will establish a $12.8 million slush fund for cancers without their own line items. The bill also includes a $31.5 million appropriation for the C.W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Recruitment and Research Program, named after the Florida Republican chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee.
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Dozens of amendments will be offered on the House floor during the debate. Most, however, simply move money from one program into another rather than cutting the overall budget. For instance, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, wants to move $15 million from the Pentagon operations budget into energy efficiency programs at military facilities. One of the few amendments that would actually cut the budget will be offered by Rep. John Canter, a Republican from Texas. He was to strike cut the number of military bands.
With the Pentagon continuing to receive funding for research and development efforts that are aimed at replacing the entire strategic bomber fleet and the entire nuclear submarine fleet – programs that will eventually cost hundreds of billions of dollars in acquisition costs – analysts say there’s little likelihood of a significant cuts coming in Pentagon spending anytime soon. “You would think there would be more debate about these big ticket programs,” said Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But what you’re seeing are people nibbling around the edges.”
More on defense spending from The Fiscal Times
Neocons Talk Deficit but Won’t Bend on Defense Cuts
Pentagon Budget Becomes Major Bargaining Chip
Defense Budget Cuts: $687 Billion Spent in 2010