Sacrifice to the Deficit Monster

Dec. 1, 1987

Caspar Weinberger must have wondered during his last few weeks in the Pentagon just what it takes to nail down a strong defense posture for the United States.

In seven years as Secretary of Defense, he pressed the case for military preparedness with clarity and relentless vigor. He led the armed forces back from the shabby conditions in which the short-ration budgets of the 1970s had left them. Defense spending rose during the recovery, but the military share of the tax dollar remained less than it had been from 1951 to 1972.

As stability returned to the weapons system acquisition process, cost overruns shrank to a shadow of their former selves. Once the United States stopped unilateral drawdowns to its defense capabilities, the Soviet Union took a new interest in arms-control negotiations.

Yet when Weinberger resigned his office on November 5 for personal reasons, the Defense Department was at the brink of savage budget cuts that threatened to dismantle the recovery – for reasons that have nothing to do with actual defense requirements or the nation’s ability to pay for first-rate military forces.

Even before the stock market drop in October, the Administration and Congress were under pressure to reduce the federal deficit. By November, that pressure had become excruciating. With no easy answers in sight, Washington deal-makers fell back on one of their favorite bits of folklore: that the deficit had been caused by defense budgets that were, to borrow a description from the Washington Post, “wildly generous.” One analyst after another pointed with alarm to the climb of defense budgets in the 1980s, but for seasons that can only be guessed at, neglected to say much about the overall trend.

They did not remind us, for example, that in 1969 the budget was balanced and no deficit existed. As the deficit grew in the 1970s, defense spending declined by seventeen percent as a share of federal spending while nondefense spending hit record highs. At no point in the 1980s, when the deficit reached alarming altitudes, did defense outlays regain a level anywhere near their share of total federal spending in 1969.

Nor did the analysts tell us that if Caspar Weinberger had gotten every dime he asked for in his budget request this year, defense would still consume less of the Gross National Product than it did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Above all, they failed to tell us how the impending budget cuts squared with validated defense requirements and about the consequences of the reductions they had in mind. Last spring, the House Armed Services Committee reviewed Weinberger’s proposal on the basis of merit and found itself in substantial agreement with him on requirements and funding. That, however, did not help the deficit problem, so the Committee subsequently voted itself in favor of a much smaller defense budget.

Looming always in the background is the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, a budgetary doomsday machine the government built to save itself from hard choices. It establishes a deficit-reduction target, and if the Administration and Congress fail to meet it by a statutory deadline, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings mechanism takes over and assesses the cuts automatically. Since a host of entitlement programs are exempt from reductions, half the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts must fall on defense, although defense accounts for less than thirty percent of federal outlays.

These facts are inconvenient for those who profess to see Pentagon fingerprints on the smoking gun in the deficit case. Caspar Weinberger stuck to the realities and insisted on a defense program based on requirements. This earned him a reputation as stubborn, unbending, and unrealistic. Inevitably, he began to lose ground.

When this editorial was written on November 10, the FY ’88 budget was still undecided, but it appeared altogether possible that a combination of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and congressional reductions might chop as much as $35.8 billion from the defense proposal submitted last January. The Administration had already calculated that if cutbacks were applied evenly across all defense budget categories, active-duty military forces would be reduced by 287,000 people and the Guard and Reserve forces by 100,000 to 130,000 people. The President promptly – and properly – declared that unacceptable and said that any reductions would be made by some other means.

A white paper on the impact, published by the Air Force Association on November 6, said that reductions of such magnitude cannot be absorbed by economies, work-arounds, and rearrangement of priorities. It laid out a long list of probably consequences for the Air Force next year, including furloughs and other measures to accommodate loss of 18,000 work-years by civilian personnel, a reduction of more then 325,000 flying hours for active-duty Air Force, cannibalization of the aircraft fleet for parts, a tripling of the depot maintenance backlog, and a drop in readiness and combat capability.

Should this worst-case scenario be put into effect, it would be only one annual feeding of the deficit monster. Several more similar feedings would be necessary in the years ahead to bring the deficit under control. The nation has a problem all right, but defense spending did not cause it.

If Congress – in full awareness of valid military requirements – settles on defense as its sacrifice to the deficit monster anyway, it raises serious questions about our commitment to a posture of strong national security.