Leadership: Votes That Kill


October 18, 2009: The U.S. Congress is again under fire for fiddling with the defense budget. This time, the legislators are accused of cutting $3.1 billion from the Operations and Maintenance budget (O&M) for "earmarks" (pet projects that help politicians get reelected). In addition, there is also the Congressionally mandated procurement of expensive items the military does not want, but whose continued production will help some people in Congress keep their jobs. Congress denies all this, and has their staffs prepare a blizzard of PowerPoint briefings that make it all look good.

The current budget was supposed to have $237 billion for O&M. The cuts amount to less than two percent, and most legislators don't see this as a problem. So what if it takes a little longer for vehicles to get repaired, or that the crews of ships, aircraft and tanks spend less time training as a result? There will be a bit of noise over this, but nothing will change.

Congress had long used the defense budget, especially in peacetime, as a major source of patronage. Military spending went to where it would get the most votes. This is why it's such a political hassle to close unneeded military bases. But it also means that money tends to be spent on what is more likely to get a politician re-elected, not to buy what the troops need. Like the military bases, once you start a major project to build a new weapon, it's political suicide to kill the project (and all the jobs in someone's congressional district).

Through the 1990s, the military was stuck with a lot of Cold War era weapons projects that were no longer needed. The new weapons were necessary when there was still an arms race going on with the Soviet Union. But in 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared, along with the arms race. But the race to keep pork barrel projects alive continues in Congress. That's one reason the U.S. defense budget dropped only 30 percent from its Cold War peak (in 1988), and has been rising again since 1997. When you add in a lot of new peacekeeping missions, without any new money to pay for them, the military has to take the money from something else. The same thing happened after September 11, 2001, and the O&M budget is often raided for emergencies. You can't touch the high profile patronage projects (mostly aircraft), so it's taken from less visible things like ammo and fuel stocks. Shortages here often don't get noticed, because you can always cut back on training. But the cuts in ammo were so severe in the late 1990s that there weren't enough bullets for the troops to train with their M-16s once the War on Terror got going. While the complaints of the soldiers made some waves in the media, there was less of a stir in Congress.

Watch how quickly the current flap fades from the news, and public memory. But the troops have to live, or die, with it every day.



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