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Defense Spending Cuts Face Likely Congressional Override

The lesson of Congress in the modern age is that it’s much harder to eliminate a program than it is to enact one. Every program has a champion somewhere on Capitol Hill, and it probably only needs one to be saved – but 218 and 60 to be put into motion.

A case in point: our bloated military budget. The Obama Administration has generally tried to cancel out unnecessary defense programs, with meager success in the last budget year. Congress will probably assert themselves in an election year, however.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has vowed to impose fiscal austerity at the Pentagon, but his biggest challenge may be persuading Congress to go along.

Lawmakers from both parties are poised to override Gates and fund the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — two weapons systems the defense secretary has been trying to cut from next year’s budget. They have also made clear they will ignore Gates’s pleas to hold the line on military pay raises and health-care costs, arguing that now is no time to skimp on pay and benefits for troops who have been fighting two drawn-out wars.

The competing agendas could lead to a major clash between Congress and the Obama administration this summer. Gates has repeatedly said he will urge President Obama to veto any defense spending bills that include money for the F-35’s extra engine or the C-17, both of which he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate last year.

Last year, after a similarly protracted struggle, Gates succeeded in getting Congress to end funding for the F-22, a plane which tended to malfunction in the rain. Seriously. But Congress did not move on the F-35 engine or the C-17, and they seem similarly positioned this year. Ike Skelton and Carl Levin support the F-35 engine, for example, and included it in their appropriation requests out of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which they separately chair.

I fully recognize that the off-limits discussion about military spending concerns the bases in over 100 countries and continued adventures abroad in places where “victory” means almost nothing. But it’s a symptom of the same problem – the persistent inertia that aids the military-industrial complex to keep the war machine moving. And so we get new engines to planes that don’t need new engines.

UPDATE: And another example – the Senate Appropriations Committee just blocked cuts to NASA funding.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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