They Want the Money

Dec. 1, 1991

In Michael Crichton’s novel The Great Train Robbery, archplotter Edward Pierce is finally brought to justice for conceiving, planning, and executing the theft of £12,000 in gold bullion from a moving railcar. The judge asks why he did it. “I wanted the money,” Pierce shrugs.

The same explanation might be more honest than those usually given by Congressmen and others who demand swift and sweeping cuts in the US defense budget. To hear them tell it now, they are reacting to changes in the Soviet Union since August. The fact is, they were clamoring for big defense cuts last summer, long before the Moscow coup.

The Administration has shown itself more than willing to make calculated reductions in defense. The five-year, 25 percent cut setting up last year’s budget agreement (supposedly good through 1995) was an Administration proposal. in September, with no guarantee of Soviet reciprocity, President Bush ordered a unilateral drawdown of US strategic forces.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney pleads that Congress not adopt a hasty “slash and burn” approach to reductions. He reminded the House Budget Committee in July that defense had been cut eleven percent in the past year while domestic spending grew by seven percent and that under the budget agreement, defense is headed for a historic low of 3.6 percent of GNP

Rep. Lewis F. Payne (D-Va.) asked Mr. Cheney to figure out some way to provide a strong national defense for less than 3.6 percent of GNP. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.) said defense must come down because the numbers in the latest fiscal projections “just simply don’t fit” and “it’s just clear that we’re not going to make cuts in discretionary domestic spending.”

The burning issue in July–or so it was said–was the federal deficit. Never mind the proclamations last January that the deficit had been resolved. It is now projected to hit $362 billion in 1992. (The government expects to collect 19.2 percent of GNP in revenues and spend 25.3 percent. Without artificial offsets and creative accounting, the deficit would be $425 billion.)

As a percentage of both GNP and federal spending, defense has been declining precipitously since 1986. In 1992, the deficit will be substantially larger than the defense budget.

In October, Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, called for cutting defense on the order of 40 percent over ten years. He said this would leave the nation 15 to 18 air wings (down from 36 in 1990), eight or so army divisions (down from 18 in 1990), and a force level of about 1 million (down from 2.1 million in 1990). Mr. Panetta’s plan includes new spending–“investments” in our “rendezvous with the 21st century”–of up to $370 billion in education, health care, and economic growth measures.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) proposes saving $150 billion (“real money that can serve real needs here at home”) in strategic forces. He bases this on a Congressional Budget Office study he commissioned. CBO found that only “modest” savings will accrue from the strategic reductions President Bush announced in September and priced out four options for a greater windfall. The most drastic would cut US strategic forces more than 80 percent below the proposed START Treaty limits.

A growing number of legislators on both sides of the aisle propose to cut defense by varying percentages to underwrite tax cuts.

The congressional defense cutters are accompanied by the usual gang of outriders. A spokesman for the Brookings Institution, for example, declares that events of the past few months make it possible to cut defense by half. (Brookings called for a 50 percent cut two years ago, but perhaps that was a different 50 percent.)

Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen lets the cat out of the bag. “It’s time,” he writes, “to bust last year’s budget agreement and–for the time being–quit worrying about the budget deficit.” The overall goal, he says flatly, is to reduce military spending and increase “socially desirable” civilian spending.

Nobody who has watched Congress at work expects any great share of proceeds from a defense cut to be applied to the deficit. Is it a coincidence that Congress wants to formally reopen the budget agreement? As the rules stand, funds can be reallocated within–but not between–categories. Defense can be cut, but the money cannot be spent elsewhere.

This is not to say that Congress and the outriders are unconcerned about the deficit or that they are not genuinely moved by developments in the Soviet Union. Mostly, though, they want the money.