Suddenly, a New Partnership

Jan. 1, 1995

House Republicans have a major piece of defense legislation all drafted and ready to drop into the hopper this month when the new Congress convenes. In it they call on their colleagues to “realistically assess United States military needs and reverse the downward spiral of defense spending.” Since coming to power two years ago, they say, the Clinton Administration has introduced defense cuts that will amount to $156 billion by 1999, and these cuts, on top of reductions made previously by the Bush Administration, could leave US forces short of what they need to perform their mission.

The pending House bill is based on a section of the “Contract With America,” published in September as a declaration of what voters could expect if the Republicans gained control of Congress in the forthcoming elections. Among other things, they promised that if they won, a “national security restoration act” would be considered during the first 100 days. The election gave the Republicans not only a majority in both the Senate and the House but also leadership of congressional committees. The Armed Services Committees this session will be chaired by two Republicans from South Carolina, Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Floyd D. Spence, who want to roll back some of the Clinton defense cuts.

Administration officials deny that they are changing direction to head off a double envelopment by congressional Republicans, but President Clinton announced on December 1 that he will ask for an additional $25 billion for defense over a six-year period “to ensure military readiness and to give our military and their families the support they deserve.” It was promptly noted, however, that sixty percent of the new funding will be delayed until after the turn of the century. Next year’s defense budget will still be lower than this year’s. The one after that will be even smaller. The Administration admitted in July that the United States cannot cover the declared strategy “with the force structure laid out right now” and acknowledged in November that holes are developing in force readiness posture.

In a letter to the President, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), both members of the Armed Services Committee, said, “We urge you to submit to Congress a defense budget request for Fiscal 1996 that maintains budget authority, in real terms, at the level of the Fiscal 1995 budget-and a Future Years Defense Program that is fully funded.” It has been a running embarrassment for Mr. Clinton that his defense budget won’t pay for the program he proposes, much less a program that would meet the actual requirements.

The Administration made its critical mistake in March 1993 when it announced sweeping defense cuts before determining what those cuts would mean in reality. Time after time thereafter, the Clinton team has calculated the military requirements only to find that the programmed resources would not cover them. Unwilling to correct the basic mistake, the Administration’s method has been to recompute the requirements and to cover some of the holes by moving money around.

Last November, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry announced a “Quality of Life” initiative concentrating on barracks improvements, family housing, and child-care centers. Unfortunately, he said, the only way to pay for it was to take money from other accounts, primarily from force modernization. Estimates of the defense budget shortfall range up to $100 billion or even (in a high shot by the General Accounting Office) $150 billion.

As Deputy Secretary of Defense John M. Deutch explains it, though, matters are now in hand. The shortfall can be expressed either as $40 billion (figured over five years) or $49 billion (six years). The additional $25 billion sought by the Administration will cover about half the gap. The rest will be resolved, in roughly equal parts, (a) by more favorable assumptions about inflation devised by the Congressional Budget Office and (b) by–surprise!–more reductions (about $12 billion worth) in the modernization account.

National defense is a partnership. The President is Commander in Chief. He also submits the defense budget proposal each year. The Constitution, however, charges Congress with the responsibility to raise and support the armed forces. Many of Mr. Clinton’s partners in Congress believe that things have gone wrong. Not all of those concerned are Republicans. “I think there would be a bipartisan interest in increasing the defense budget,” says Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

A Washington Post editorial also welcomed the “new defense debate,” saying that “the right way to do the exercise is to work out from the threats to the necessary forces to the cost. Too often it’s done the other way around.” Good point.

In the summer of 1993, for example, the review of requirements indicated a force that included twenty-four fighter wings, 184 operational bombers, and a lot of airlift. The arbitrary budget ceiling said otherwise, so the goal was duly marked down to twenty fighter wings and 100 operational bombers. That is no way to structure a defense program.

That is the basic message that Mr. Clinton is getting, or should be getting, from his partners in Congress. Pay attention to the requirements. Make sure they’re covered. Anything else does not add up to national security.