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Push is coming to shove over the Pentagon budget

COMMENTARY | July 16, 2009

George C. Wilson writes that President Obama and Secretary Gates are at risk of being steamrolled by Congress, which is treating military spending as a jobs program for hard times.

By George C. Wilson

President Obama, who already plans to spend even more on everyday national defense — not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — in his next four years than former President George W. Bush had projected, will fight another big battle this week against the congressional-military-industrial complex. Obama will try to keep the job-hungry Senate from putting more billions of dollars in the FY10 defense authorization bill than he thinks the country needs.

Obama lost his first Pentagon budget battle June 25 when the House voted 389-22 to authorize millions of dollars for weapons the administration did not want. The poster child for the House add-ons was the Air Force’s F-22 fighter plane. The Pentagon itself has priced this plane at over $350 million a copy if the research and development costs the taxpayers have already paid for are counted.
In response to the House rolling Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, the traditionally restrained White House budgeters warned Congress that they would recommend that Obama veto the authorization bill if the extra $369 million the House added as a down payment for 12 more F-22s cleared Congress.
“The collective judgment of the service chiefs and secretaries of the military departments suggests that 187 F-22s is sufficient to meet operational requirements,” said OMB. “If the final bill to the president contains this provision, the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto.”
The F-22 was designed in the Cold War to combat a threat that no longer exists: clearing European skies of Warsaw Pact air forces in case the Cold War went hot. The Air Force now advertises the F-22 as an air superiority aircraft with a limited bombing capacity. The plane has yet to play a role in the Global War on Terror and perhaps never will. The cited price tag is derived from the Pentagon’s own Selected Acquisition Report estimating that 184 F-22s will cost $64.5 billion, or $350.8 million each, including R & D.
Rather than argue that more F-22s are needed to combat threats from comparable foreign aircraft, House proponents chose to focus instead on jobs lost if Obama got his way and Lockheed Martin was ordered to stop production at 187 aircraft.
That politicians regard the Pentagon budget as a public works program came through loud and clear in statement after statement. This recession panic has bred a philosophy of any job is a good job, needed or not.
Gates found himself shouting down a well when he tried to convince fellow Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee May 13 that “we are not cutting the F-22 force. We are completing the program of record that was established in 2005 in the Bush administration. That then called for 183 F-22s. That’s the program of record that two different presidents; two different secretaries of defense, and two different chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has thought was the right number.” Gates and Obama drew the line at 187 aircraft after asking Congress for four more planes in the FY09 war supplemental enacted last month.
Congressional fears about losing jobs if military procurement is cut is likely to keep driving up the top line of that part of future defense budgets that do not contain money for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even before today’s recession panic set in, Obama’s regular, non-war-related defense budget was higher than the comparative budgets projected by Bush. The comparison in billions of dollars of budget authority:
Fiscal Year   Bush           Obama
2010             549.8           562.8
2011             556.3           570.5
2012             565.1           579.5
2013             575.6           590.0
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and ranking member John McCain are allied with Obama in trying to stop production of the F-22. But the fact that Levin could not get his way on the F-22 in the bill his own committee reported out shows the steepness of his uphill floor fight.
If past is prologue on this issue, as it usually is, Obama will probably craft some compromise to avoid a veto. There is just too much stuff in the authorization bill the military needs.
President John F. Kennedy in 1962 butted heads with House Armed Services Chairman Carl Vinson, D-Ga., about whether more money should be authorized for the RS-70 bomber. Kennedy was against doing it; Vinson strongly for.
But Kennedy had the votes to get his way and Vinson knew it. So during a walk together in the White House Rose Garden, Vinson, known as the Swamp Fox, pulled out of his pocket a letter that would save face for him by ordering an RS-70 study. Kennedy took Vinson’s letter, tuned it up a bit and sent it to Congress, where it was happily accepted without producing the RS-70 bomber.
But Kennedy did not have a deep recession to contend with in 1962 as Obama has on his hands now. So persuading the pols to kill F-22 jobs Lockheed Martin has spread around most of the 50 states will be a big test of how strong Obama can be when pitted against the military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about as he left office in 1961.
This column first appeared in National Journal’s www.congressdaily.com.


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