I recently was invited to sign a joint think-tank letter calling on Congress to implement various defense reforms. Among the measures recommended were closing excess bases, shrinking the defense department’s civilian workforce, and restructuring military compensation. I declined to sign the letter, even though its recommendations were eminently sensible and the people who drafted it were nonpartisan experts.
The reason I didn’t sign is that budgeting for defense is a political process, and all of the changes recommended in the letter posed a threat to important political constituencies. Thus, it was unlikely to have an impact on the legislative process, and if its proposals actually were implemented that would diminish political support for defense spending. With money tight and threats receding, the military needs all the friends it can find on Capitol Hill.
I suppose it is the job of public-policy research organizations to define the content of good governance, but I’m doubtful that role is enhanced by advancing ideas that the political system is likely to ignore. The notion that Congress would willingly set in motion another round of base closures knowing that up to a third of Air Force bases might disappear, or that it would cut into benefits that military personnel have planned their lives around, seems wildly improbable.
For me, the question isn’t whether a base is needed or a benefit is desirable so much as what the political fallout is likely to be in terms of support for a robust defense posture. There has always been a congressional “premium” of questionable expenditures tacked onto the defense budget that reflects the political dynamics of the institution. I’d say 20% of current defense spending isn’t really necessary to achieve the goals set forth in national strategy.
The real question, though, is whether the 80% of expenditures that are necessary could be sustained from year to year in the absence of that political premium. Past experience suggests that in times of diminished danger, many legislators won’t support a strong defense posture unless their constituents get a piece of the pie — deserved or not. So the issue for me isn’t whether the Navy needs a public-sector shipyard near Portsmouth, New Hampshire that employs thousands of civilians. Of course it doesn’t. The issue is what will happen to congressional support of defense spending if all such superfluous facilities disappear.
If we want to make this system more efficient, then we have to start by recognizing its political character. For instance, spending on military pay and benefits fell substantially after the Cold War ended — but only because we reduced the headcount of personnel receiving compensation. That’s the political way of getting pay and benefits down to a manageable scale. And the way of cutting the civilian workforce isn’t by going after mechanics at the Anniston Army Depot, but by getting legislators to see that all those defense bureaucrats in Washington are a threat to jobs in places like Anniston.
I know this isn’t an uplifting picture of how our system works, but it is a realistic one. We can make defense much more efficient than it currently is by reducing paperwork, scaling back testing, streamlining requirements, and any number of other initiatives. But you can’t get any of that done unless you explain to Members of Congress why it is in the interest of their constituents to change the system. Because budgeting for defense will always be a political process.
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