WASHINGTON -- If we're ever going to achieve reason on defense spending, we're going to need a good villain image. A bloated defense-contractor king, maybe.
You remember the welfare queen: Her role in the national lore was to embody welfare as devourer of the national budget and creator of dependency, a self-regenerating maw of wasteful consumption we seemed powerless to do anything about -- until her ugly visage rose and energized us, and we acted at last.
Now, imagine if politicians had proposed as a solution not "ending welfare as we know it" but piling on more money -- feeding the voracious welfare queen yet more generously.
There you have the defense-spending picture today.
Our military budget for next year will be somewhat more than $310 billion. It will absorb just about half of every dollar available for discretionary spending. It is bigger than the combined military spending of the next 10 military powers. Yet the two men who seek to be president are tripping all over each other promising more. Al Gore said recently he'd spend $100 billion of the projected surplus on the military. He took the occasion to jab at George W. Bush because he had proposed "only" $45 billion in additional defense spending.
"This is simply a bidding war," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, a Washington arms control agency.
The candidates manage to look serious while committing this fiscal recklessness because they couch it as a matter of military readiness. What decent American can stand to see our armed services inadequately supported, our defense unready?
But if it were readiness that consumed our political leaders, their approach would be entirely different. Wisconsin Rep. David Obey last year estimated that, of the $27 billion Congress had added to the president's defense budgets over the preceding four years, $3.5 billion went to readiness. The rest feathered congressional districts and the defense industries therein. As for this year's defense appropriations bill, John McCain estimated the pork in it at a cool $7 billion.
If the military is unready, it's not because the defense budget is being starved.
Yet what a dirge the campaigns took to the VFW convention, outdoing one another in lamentations about how underattended are America's defenses. Bush charged Clinton with "long neglect," a military overextended and "in decline." Defense Secretary William Cohen fought back, saying it was President Bush's administration that had weakened the military and the Clinton administration that rescued it, with substantial increases in spending.
Dick Cheney, Bush's defense secretary, retorted with his own exposition of Clinton administration underfunding: "Defense spending today is lower as a percentage of GNP than at any time since 1940, the year before the attack on Pearl Harbor."
That's true. But it says a lot more about how big the economy is than how small is military spending. If you think budgets are more logically based on need than on cash available, this other fact may be more enlightening: Military spending totals are almost 95 percent of what they were on average during the Cold War.
Defense dollars are in direct competition with dollars for Head Start and other education programs, as well as health care, the environment and other social programs. Yet only in defense does waste win the enthusiastic respect of those who dole out the dough.
This irresponsibility continues in part because the public pays little attention. A Pew Research Center poll last June, in a typical finding, showed military issues ranking "very low" in voter interest.
When voters do pay attention, they're wonderfully sensible. Consider a tidbit from "Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling" by Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, complained last year, the authors tell us, that women don't support military spending because "there's all these touch-feely things that they want to spend money on." Women constantly ask him, added Stevens, "Why do you want to spend more money on the military? Don't they have enough?"
That isn't opposition to military spending. That's opposition to waste. These women probably assume -- quite correctly -- that we have the strongest military in the world. And also that we have other needs that should be addressed. And that resources should be distributed more equitably, more wisely, more sensibly.
I say, hand those women a microphone. And make sure, too, that they have on stage with them a cardboard cutout of the corpulent defense contractor king who looms over the self-satisfied little congressman. Maybe the picture will finally begin to become clear.
Geneva Overholser is a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.
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