Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-CA, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), weighed in yesterday on the growing debate fueled by the president’s deficit commission regarding cuts in defense spending. In an editorial in USA Today, the Congressman declared that, “Cutting defense amid two wars to pay down the deficit is a non-starter for me. . .” Implicit in McKeon’s position is the idea that defense spending is not like other elements of the discretionary portion of the federal budget. Defense spending is not the same as that for parks and recreation, educational enrichment or green energy projects. Rather, defense spending is about our survival and the protection of our freedoms, global interests and citizens. Unless we are very careful or very lucky, cutting defense can result in the deaths of soldiers, successful terrorist attacks, unanswered aggression and even the reductions in our own freedoms or those of close friends and allies.
The deficit commission was fundamentally wrong when it came to cutting defense spending. First, it recommended equal percentage reductions to defense and non-defense discretionary spending. But, as noted above, the two areas are not of equal value to the state and its citizens. In addition, the deficit commission had the dangerous idea of putting limits not just on the basic defense budget but on spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would leave it up to the Pentagon to decide whether to forgo body armor for the troops or ammunition. Some choice! Just because everything was on the table, a good idea in principle, does not mean that every expenditure should be evaluated or “scored” equally. In the face of North Korean aggression, Iran’s pending acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the rise of China’s military power, Russia’s threat to reignite an arms race with the West, the growing specter of cyber war and more, the value of a strong defense as an insurance policy against calamities large and small must be given due consideration.
But just because it makes little sense to cut the defense budget in a time of war in order to reduce the deficit, it is equally silly to continue the old approaches to defense spending. Congressman McKeon wisely endorsed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ effort to wring $100 billion inefficiencies out of the defense budget. McKeon stated that, “The days of failing to deliver major weapons programs on time and on budget must come to an end.” He asserted that “Congress should work to cut under-performing programs, eliminate wasteful bureaucracy and demand a more efficient enterprise to get a bigger bang out of every defense dollar.”
One would hope that as the new Chairman takes charge of the HASC he will keep the pressure on the Pentagon not just to make good on the Secretary’s vision but to do so with honest contracting and accurate accounting. For example, how about hearings to determine whether the current effort at the defense department to insource work performed by the private sector is based on accurate accounting of the costs of both private and public sector work? Since publicly available information shows that workers in the public sector receive, on average, twice the total compensation as do private sector workers, according to USA Today, how can the public sector be cheaper? But that is what the Pentagon has been claiming.
Or, the Chairman could have the committee look into the consequences of efforts by the Under Secretary for AT&L, Dr. Ashton Carter, to impose fixed-price incentive fee contracts on the defense industry. Such a contracting mechanism is fine when the focus is procurement of commodity items or even platforms that have a long established history. But when it is imposed on development of an entirely new platform or weapons system, the results could be catastrophic. Congressman McKeon would be well served by asking defense industry leaders what they think of the idea.
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