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congress pentagon budget

Congress Should Take a Harder Look at the Pentagon Budget

We need to rethink our strategy along with our spending.

Words: William D. Hartung
Pictures: D. Thompson/US State Department

Summer is near and Congress has begun to grapple with the Trump administration’s Pentagon budget proposal in earnest. While there are some hopeful signs, much more needs to be done to rein in a department that is slated to receive one of the highest levels of funding since World War II.

On the positive side of the ledger, the House Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act would defund the Trump administration’s dangerous, redundant, and counterproductive initiative to develop a low-yield nuclear weapon for deployment on Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The newly proposed, more “usable” nuke is premised on the idea that it could be used in a limited nuclear strike that would not escalate into an all-out nuclear conflagration. But as former secretary of defense James Mattis has noted, ““I don’t think there’s any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.” In a parallel effort, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) have introduced the Hold the LYNE Act to prevent deployment of the low-yield nuclear warhead. Hopefully the efforts to block the low-yield nuclear weapon will be the start of a larger effort to scale back other elements of the Pentagon’s unnecessary, $1.2 trillion nuclear modernization plan. A good place to start would be with the Arms Control Association’s recently proposed options for reducing the size and scope of the nuclear buildup.

The modest reduction from Trump’s plan is a tiny slice of an excessive budget that continues to fund endless wars, nuclear excess, an inefficient bureaucracy, and the not-ready-for-combat F-35 combat aircraft.

Another promising move was the House Appropriations Committee’s proposal to scale back the administration’s massive, $165 billion proposal for the war budget, known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO. The proposed OCO figure for FY2020 is comparable to the $163 billion figure reached at the peak of the Iraq and Afghan wars, when the US had nearly nine times as many troops in combat zones as it does now. The vast bulk of these funds are set aside for activities that have no direct relationship to fighting wars. Instead, the OCO account is once again being used as a slush fund to evade the caps on the Pentagon’s regular budget established under the Budget Control Act of 2011. The committee didn’t do much to reduce the Pentagon’s top line, but as Taxpayers for Common Sense has written, “at least there are some stirrings of budget oversight by the House Appropriations Committee.” And that’s all to the good.

As for the top line, there have been indications that the House Democratic leadership is aiming to promote a deal to raise the budget caps imposed by law that would include a significant increase in Pentagon spending, more than last year’s ample sum and only slightly less than the Trump administration’s proposal of $750 billion. The modest reduction from Trump’s plan is a tiny slice of an excessive budget that continues to fund endless wars, nuclear excess, an inefficient bureaucracy, and the not-ready-for-combat F-35 combat aircraft. Congress needs to cast a sharper eye on the Pentagon’s budget and come up with a lower number. An analysis by Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress has set out a plan that would reduce the FY2020 plan to $700 billion, and there are other initiatives in the works that propose more substantial reductions. What is ultimately needed is a thorough rethinking of US strategy that takes a less interventionist stance, adopts a deterrence-only nuclear strategy, and privileges diplomacy over war and threats of war. But while that’s happening, there is much that can be done to bring the Pentagon budget under control, and it is up to Congress to do it.

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

William D. Hartung

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