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Congress Must Make ‘Unimaginable’ Defense Budget Choices: HASC’s Adam Smith

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Lawmakers Work On Capitol Hill During The Final Hours Before Federal Budget Deadline

WASHINGTON: “We are going to have to do some series of things that previously were unimaginable, OK? So we’re going to have to re-adjust our imagination. We’ve simply chosen not to,” Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said today. “We need a strategic response in Congress other than just ‘no, don’t cut that.'”

The detailed packages of potential cuts rolled out yesterday by four thinktanks are a model for the painful program choices Congress and the Pentagon have to confront, Smith told reporters at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast this morning. “But too many others are just saying ‘no,'” he went on: “no BRAC [base closures]no changes to the Guard and Reserve; no shrinkage of the size of the Navy. You gotta put something on the table.”

So, I asked, which proposals by the four thinktanks might be politically doable?

“I think we still haven’t crossed over that fulcrum of accepting that something has to be done,” Smith said. “So at this point, if you were to analyze piece by piece everything out there, you’d have to reach the logical conclusion that none of it is politically doable. Every little piece is being fought.”

“At what point do we finally cross over that [resistance] and say, ‘look, I know we’d rather not do any of this stuff, but we have to make a choice’?” he asked. “I don’t know when we get there.”

His greatest fear, Smith said, is that Congress’ refusal to compromise on weapons programs, force size, pay, or benefits will force the military to cut training, ammunition, and other readiness funds — and that politicians will be able to ignore the consequences until troops end up in combat unprepared and people die.

So what would he cut? Smith is a savvy politician, so he was cagey on specific programs, although he did suggest there was probably money to be saved by shrinking the nuclear arsenal — a fairly predictable answer from a Democrat. He did say loud and clear that the Pentagon needs to reform its notoriously inefficient acquisition system and slow the rate of growth in pay and benefits. Military benefits, of course, are and have been among the most bitterly contested defense issues in Congress.

Consider the one percent trim of cost of living adjustments for working-age military retirees appropriators slipped into December’s budget deal, Smith said.

“I understand that a one percent cut in the COLA is not insubstantial. It is a decrease in what the increase in retirements is going to be,” he said. (Under the plan, benefits would not actually decrease below current levels, they just wouldn’t increase as quickly in the future — and fall behind inflation by certain measures). “If you’re not going to cut this, what are you going to cut?”

Activists for veterans and military personnel have argued that changing promised benefits is a breach of faith that will undermine trust in the military and thus people’s willingness to join up and stay in, one reporter noted.

“I don’t have sympathy for that argument,” Smith said. “Believe me, I think our military ought to be the best compensated, best taken care of military in the world — and I think it is.”

“If we are going to deal [based] on what you were promised when you came in,” Smith said scathingly, “then let’s get rid of the [post-9/11] updated GI bill, let’s get rid of the yearly pay increases, let’s get rid of all the increase in combat pay, let’s get rid of all of the billions, the tens of billions of dollars that we added after you got recruited.”

And if you think reducing future retirement benefits will hurt recruitment, Smith argued, what do you think reducing readiness funds will do? “How much is it going to hurt recruiting when you bring folks in and say, ‘you’re a pilot, OK? Once a month you get to fly’?” he asked. What if your ground combat troops are saying, well, I haven’t been in a tank in three months, our unit hasn’t trained, they tell me I only have enough bullets to go out and practice [live] fire once a month. What’s that going to do to recruiting?”

Then there’s the argument many in Congress have made that Pentagon planning, especially the supposedly strategy-driven Quadrennial Defense Review, should be driven by what the nation needs to protect itself, and not be constrained by artificial budget numbers.

“I never understand that argument,” Smith shot back. “It makes literally no sense to me.” There is never enough money to protect against all threats, he argued, so you always have to take risk somewhere. “Should we just [say] ‘WAAAH we don’t have enough money to save ourselves, let’s all jump off a bridge’?'” he asked. “You can either just go insane and start bouncing off the rubber walls and say ‘there’s no hope there’s no hope there’s no hope’ — or you do the best you can with what you’ve got, which by the way is what we do every frickin’ day” in our personal lives.

“I hope we can get past that, your plan is bad because it’s based on how much money we have instead of what we need,'” Smith added, rolling his eyes and making a curious combination of a sigh and a retching noise.

“We ought to be able to come up with a strategy whereby $500 billion a year is enough to meet our national security needs,” he added. “Unfortunately… as far as interest groups and far too many members of Congress are concerned, they’re simply trying to protect everything.”

“We have this great consensus in this country that the deficit needs to be eliminated and we need to balance the budget  — but don’t cut anything and don’t raise any taxes,'” Smith said. “Voters are going to have to stand up and say, it’s okay to make those cuts, it’s okay to raise taxes, because it beats the alternative. I don’t know when that happens.”

What do you think?