The Military Money Pit

BROODING OVER the deficit is Washington's civil religion, and as the budget gap exploded over the last two years, we've witnessed a revival. From the Tea Party to the White House, the deficit is a driving concern. Fear of adding to it has thwarted Democratic efforts at another stimulus. Anger over it could determine who controls Congress. No force in politics is more powerful.

So it's odd that the largest category of discretionary spending has largely escaped scrutiny: military spending. In January, when President Obama proposed a three-year freeze in discretionary spending, he pointedly exempted the military. Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators and policy experts asked an important question: Why?

The group, The Sustainable Defense Task Force, encompasses the political spectrum - from Barney Frank, on the left, to Ron Paul, on the right - along with a host of military reformers. They share a belief that unrestrained military spending is a danger to the budget, and to the country. And they make a persuasive case that we can spend less without sacrificing security.

Today, the United States spends more on its military than during the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer poses a threat, yet we continue to spend huge sums protecting countries in Europe and Asia. This defense subsidy allows Europeans to provide a level of social welfare far in excess of what the United States offers its citizens. If Germany, France, and Britain bore more of their own defense costs, US tax dollars could go elsewhere, or nowhere.

Overpriced, underperforming weapons systems are a hardy Washington perennial also ripe for the cutting. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and the V-22 Osprey - all identified as potential cost savings in the task force report - have been targeted by reformers for years. No less a hawk than Dick Cheney has pronounced the V-22 "a turkey.'' That we continue paying for these weapons makes even less sense now that terrorists, not communists, are the enemy.

This sorry state of affairs persists mainly for two reasons. Presidents rarely confront it: Republicans like to spend money on the military, and Democrats are afraid not to. "For years,'' Frank said, "the major obstacle to a Democrat winning the presidency was being seen as soft on defense. That's why Mike Dukakis put on that helmet and got in a tank.''

The other reason is that Congress tends to think about boondoggle weapons systems in the context of jobs, not deficits. Killing a turkey is viewed as eliminating a major employer. (Last month, Frank voted over the objections of the defense secretary to fund a duplicate F-35 engine built in Lynn, but says he'd kill the fighter altogether if it came to a vote.) So we still buy useless weapons, over the protests of reformers and defense officials.

That kind of backward thinking could start to change. Bringing the deficit under control is a zero-sum game. Eventually, we'll have to raise taxes and cut spending. As budget pressure grows, the nearly $1 trillion in military cuts proposed by the task force could look appealing. One way of getting this done is through the president's Deficit Reduction Commission, which will recommend a package of cuts to Congress in December for an up-or-down vote. The Sustainable Defense Task Force is lobbying the commission to do what Obama wouldn't: consider military cuts, and in the context of the entire federal budget. Members like Frank and Paul say they'll vote against any package that doesn't, and encourage congressional colleagues to do likewise.

Obama speaks often about overcoming old ways of thinking, but he chooses his fights carefully. He's ducked this one for now. But it's hard to see why he'd maintain the Democrats' defensive crouch, especially when military spending cuts would achieve two things he holds dear. First, it would demonstrate that he's serious about deficit cutting, which might free him and his party from their political stricture. Second, it would give him an opportunity to cooperate with Republicans, and not just moderates, but true deficit hawks like Paul. Targeting wasteful military spending - like, say, those subsidies to the French - might even channel Tea Party anger over government spending toward a productive purpose.

Joshua Green is senior editor of The Atlantic. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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