Why Congress Fights the President on Defense

By Roger Zakheim

Two years into sequestration and the Congress acts as if the steep budget cuts imposed on the Pentagon do not exist. Where’s the strategic thinking? Why can’t Capitol Hill jettison parochialism and entrenched interest and embrace a reform agenda for the military? So goes the latest cry from pundits and budgeteers alike as the House passed the annual defense appropriations bill last week.

But those who hope that the Senate may take the so-called “responsible path” will be disappointed to learn that the Democratic Senate is more likely to follow the Republican House of Representatives than the Obama White House on defense policy. The Senate Armed Services Committee has already made many of the same choices as the House on legacy defense systems and base closures.

To be sure, there will be those who say the Senate couldn’t overcome the same political vagaries that drove the House defense bill. They’ll dismiss this as an another example of the never-ending story of American politicians corrupted by political opportunism, beholden to interest groups, and a Congress prone to kicking the can down the road and avoiding tough policy decisions.

But that narrative masks what’s really taking place in the struggle over defense policy between the political branches.

That struggle isn’t one of weapon systems or health care costs, but a different view of the world. Many in Congress reject the Obama administration’s budget-driven approach to national defense – the past few defense bills have reflected that disagreement.

But it’s a mistake to think the Congress hasn’t acted on a bloated Pentagon. Over half of the deficit reduction measures taken by the Congress to date have come out of the military budget. Contrary to critics, Congress has already increased the costs of military healthcare copays and decreased the annual 1.8% statutory military pay raise. Congress has also reduced the size of the military to pre-9/11 levels.

And what about those unwanted, unneeded programs? Scores have already been cut, while many military modernization programs are buckling under budget pressure.  We’re well past the point of pruning the low hanging fruit, a process that has been ongoing since 2009. For every program the Obama administration wants to cut, there’s a real-time Combatant Commander need for those capabilities.

Can we tout a rebalance to Asia while cutting two aircraft carriers? Should we end the fighter program with electronic warfare capability that was used as recently as the Libya campaign? Or should we end the cruise missile program that was also used in Libya and would be critical in any future conflict? These decisions would unilaterally take military options off the table.

And then there’s the matter of the military industrial base. The Pentagon’s strategy assures us that the military will not engage in extended ground conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan, so we can let the factories that produce tanks and fighting vehicles to simply shut down. Tepid assurances of “reversibility” -- the notion that if there is a need the military can ramp up capabilities like flipping a light switch -- are unrealistic and provide little comfort.

Could more be done on base closure and reforms to benefits and compensation? Certainly. But, it will not occur until there’s a serious negotiation between the Obama administration and the Congress. As long as proposals are sent via snail mail over the Potomac to Congress, the reforms will continue to collect dust and leaders in the Pentagon will revert to voicing outrage and frustration. A compromise may be in the making, but so far there isn’t even a negotiating table.

Cutting the force, cutting capability, and cutting our military presence present risks many in Congress are unwilling to take. Events playing out today from Ukraine to Iraq to the South China Sea buttress that unwillingness.

The reality is that our current defense strategy is riddled with risk. This is not a critique invented by a cabal of defense hawks, but the commentary of the military leaders who have come to the Hill testify. General Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, warned in testimony that the current budgetary environment allow him to execute the President’s defense strategy “but it will be at significant risk.” Other military leaders have repeatedly  voiced the same concern.

So the choice before Congress is either embrace a smaller, less capable military, but increase the risk to our nation, or reject an irreversible budget-driven defense posture in the hopes of preserving a military with a realistic chance of meeting the host of rising threats across the globe.

The matter is far from settled. The struggle over defense strategy and budgets will continue, but don’t be fooled by the pundits: there’s more at play here than a member’s district. At stake is what is required to provide for the common defense – a responsibility our founders gave to the U.S. Congress.

Roger Zakheim is an attorney at Covington & Burling LLP and a Visiting Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Deputy Staff Director and General Counsel on the House Armed Services Committee.

Roger Zakheim
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