Mac Thornberry’s retirement will cost the Pentagon one of its most polished, articulate allies in Congress. In his key roles – first as chair of the House Armed Services and then as its ranking Republican — he relentlessly advocated for more Pentagon spending, even as the department was already receiving near-record levels of taxpayer dollars.
By incorrectly claiming that the US military was in the midst of a “readiness crisis” caused by the budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, Thornberry was instrumental in winning the Pentagon budgetary resources that could exceed $1.4 trillion for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, assuming Congress can pass a budget this year rather than relying on a continuing resolution that could freeze spending at more or less last year’s levels. According to statistics compiled by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, the latest tranche of funding tops off a decade in which the department has been authorized to receive over $5.8 trillion dollars. This is over $1 trillion more than DOD received in the prior decade, which included the peak of the Iraq and Afghan wars. So much for the “crippling” impacts of the Budget Control Act (BCA).
According to the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon has not adequately documented its alleged savings of recent years.
The truth is that to the extent that the Pentagon has had issues with funding of training, maintenance, or other ingredients of readiness – a situation that has been greatly exaggerated — it is due to misplaced priorities and a lack of spending discipline, not a lack of funding, a reality that Thornberry refused to acknowledge.
Congress and the Pentagon were able to evade the caps set out by law through two main maneuvers – periodically increasing the levels of the annual caps, and using the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account (the war budget) to pay for tens of billions of dollars of equipment and operating funds that had nothing to do with fighting wars. This was possible because the war budget was not subject to the caps established by the BCA.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his role as one of the Pentagon’s chief boosters, Thornberry promoted a reform plan that would purportedly cut the Pentagon’s bureaucracy by $25 billion. But these savings may or may not ever materialize. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon has not adequately documented its alleged savings of recent years. And Thornberry’s approach would have eliminated the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), a critical tool for helping communities adjust to reductions in Pentagon spending that would, among other things, make it easier to close unnecessary military bases. Perhaps most tellingly, any savings from the Thornberry plan would be plowed right back into the Pentagon’s bloated budget, for dysfunctional weapons systems like the F-35 combat aircraft, overpriced and outmoded aircraft carriers, and an unnecessary and dangerous nuclear weapons buildup.
What’s next for Thornberry? If he follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, he will find a comfortable niche as a lobbyist for the arms industry. Thornberry is well acquainted with the defense industry, which contributed a whopping $650,000 to his campaigns in the past three election cycles. The other pressing question is whether Thornberry’s replacement as ranking Republican on Armed Services will be as skilled an advocate for the Pentagon as he has been. DOD and the arms industry fervently hope so. Stay tuned.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and co-director of the Center’s Sustainable Defense Task Force.