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A trillion dollars a year on two little wars?

COMMENTARY | April 20, 2010

Asks George Wilson: How is it possible to spend so much when we are fighting “two little wars against enemies with no ships, warplanes or tanks.”

By George C. Wilson

Even Ripley of “Believe It Or Not” fame would not be­lieve it. But the United States as it slides further down the deficit gulch is spending more than $1 trillion a year on national defense despite fighting only two little wars against enemies with no ships, warplanes or tanks.
Yes, I know. President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates broadcast smaller figures for national defense, $700 billion plus for this and the coming fiscal year. What they fail to say is that their totals do not include the money to protect our homeland from terrorists nor the billions the Energy Department spends on nuclear warheads.
Certainly protecting the homeland and providing warheads are part of the powers our Founding Fathers gave Congress, not the president, in Article I section 8 of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to… provide for the common De­fence” and “to declare war.”
The more accurate total for describing what Obama is asking Congress to let him spend in FY11 on “the common defense” is more than $1 trillion. I arrived at about $1,048,800,000,000 as the real total cost of providing for the common defense by adding up these figures in Obama’s new budget: $548.9 billion in the Pentagon’s discretionary budget; $4.2 billion in obliga­tions it has to pay; $159.1 billion for the wars in Iraq and Af­ghanistan; $18.8 billion the Energy Department is expected to spend this coming budget year on nuclear weaponry; $7.6 bil­lion on miscellaneous accounts related to the common defense. This comes out to about $738.6 billion for national defense but leaves out many of the other billions slated to be spent on the common defense.
The seldom-discussed amounts in Obama’s budget but defi­nitely linked to providing for the common defense include $43.6 billion for the Homeland Security Department; $122 billion for the Veterans Affairs Department; $65.3 billion for defense-re­lated international affairs; $25.9 billion contributed by the Trea­sury Department for defense needs; $53.4 billion for interest on the Pentagon’s Healthcare fund and defense portion of the na­tional debt.
GAO recently studied the Pentagon’s buying of its major weap­ons and reported that the taxpayers were being hosed as defense contractors ran up almost $300 billion in overruns on their originally agreed-upon prices in FY08.
Yet Obama has publicly vowed not to cut his new defense budget. Why shouldn’t the Obama Pentagon contribute to reduc­ing the deficit, which will weaken, if not bankrupt, the country no matter how many warplanes, guns, tanks and ships we buy?
No end of banana republic dictators have been toppled after their people found they could not eat guns, tanks or planes.
And no less an authority then Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, a former bean counter for his state government, said during a recent hearing: “The whole enterprise of the budget of the United States is utterly disconnected from reality. We have now had the Chinese warn us publicly and privately that they are increasingly reluctant to finance this debt” of the United States by buying the Treasury bonds that keep our government functioning. “We’re on an utterly unsustainable course in every aspect of our spending, in every aspect of our revenue, because the gap between the two is utterly unsustainable.”
Two ways to make our government sustainable are to cut fed­eral spending and raise taxes.
Gates could save billions in spending, for instance, by killing the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as the former Pen­tagon chief weapons tester, Thomas Christie, recommended in my last column.
But Obama will not do that during this midterm election year any more than he will raise taxes.
The majority of members of Congress now regards buying weapons, no matter how much they cost or how poorly they perform or how little they match the threat, a legitimate public works program because of all the jobs they provide back home.
“We can’t have a circumstance in which precious dollars that are being allocated for the nation’s defense are wasted,” Conrad further lamented. “And the only way we can determine whether or not that occurs is if we have auditable records.”
It seems that since I was a little boy, Pentagon leaders have been promising Congress to straighten out their admitted ac­counting mess to make their spending auditable. Alas, many Pentagon accounts are still not auditable.
While Congress and the Pentagon have promised to reform the way weapons are bought to reduce cost overruns, I don’t think that will happen until there is a cultural change within the military-industrial-political complex.
If he did nothing else right, the late Defense Secretary Rob­ert McNamara early in his tenure persuaded Congress and the public that more jobs would be created by closing surplus military bases and us­ing the money spent on keeping them open on civilian projects. Obama, the great communicator, needs to sell that ar­gument anew to make providing for the common defense a rational endeavor.
(This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDaily.)

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