Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates returned to Washington recently to give testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Gates’ SASC appearance came at the behest of the committee’s chairman, Senator John McCain, to kick off a series of hearings focused on defense reform. While many will cheer the former defense secretary’s chastisement of Congress for its dysfunction, his criticism of the legislative branch was somewhat misguided.
To begin though, Gates rightly threw cold water on the notion that many in Congress like to entertain about our time being the most dangerous in living memory. He correctly notes that over the past century, the United States has faced bigger, more dangerous, and more unpredictable threats than it faces today.
However, Gates’ contention that the biggest threat to U.S. interests is the Congressional appropriations process is problematic for reasons I’ve discussed before. Appropriations are a product of the political process. Politics are messy. Many wistfully look back at the halcyon days of the Cold War and see a unity of purpose in the U.S. government that they find lacking today. But the government was never as unified as the nostalgics claim. And the brief experience of defense-related unity of purpose was the product of an overarching threat, the Soviet Union. Happily, no such threat exists today.
The political process in the United States has always been a matter of many competing interests. In the absence of an overarching threat to focus it, the process can best be characterized by what political scientist Robert Jervis called “pluralism with a vengeance.” The Department of Defense needs to acknowledge that it’s not beyond or above politics, and that it’s simply one of many bureaucracies making claims on a limited budget. Defense may be important, but it’s not the only important thing the government does, and other budget priorities sometimes take precedence. Two and a half decades after the Cold War, it is high time the Pentagon came to terms with the turbulent political process of which it is a part.
That the Department of Defense has apparently failed to account for the turbulence of basic distributional politics raises an interesting question. Who is really at fault for persistent confusion about the defense budget? According to Gates, it is the failure of Congress to provide consistent appropriations that is the most dangerous threat the military faces today. But the spending caps established by the Budget Control Act (BCA) were nothing if not consistent. The caps laid out the amount of money Congress could allocate to the Pentagon each year until fiscal year 2021. For most of that period the Department would receive more than half a trillion dollars each year, not including supplemental war funding that has become a regular part of defense appropriations.
The Pentagon has yet to be required to stick to the BCA caps. While sequestration hit the military hard in March 2013, the 2013 Ryan-Murray budget deal raised the caps by $22.5 billion and $9 billion in 2014 and 2015, respectively. And the most recent budget deal similarly raises the caps. While it is difficult to fault the Pentagon for pursuing bigger budgets, if consistency in appropriations were really a problem, wouldn’t the military have been better served planning within the budget caps Congress laid out for the remainder of the decade?
This is not to say Congress is blameless for the many problems at the Department of Defense. For one, by continually agreeing to increase the BCA spending limits, and institutionalizing the Overseas Contingency Operations account slush fund, the legislative branch has saved the Pentagon from having to make hard choices. Additionally, Congress tends to stonewall the military’s requests to close domestic bases, which would produce some financial savings. And while legislators are allowing changes to the military’s retirement system, a necessary overhaul of the military’s health care system remains a political non-starter.
No one should feel sympathy for Congress in light of Gates’ criticism. But fixing the problems with defense means understanding that turbulence is inherent in a pluralistic political system. The Department of Defense has never been entirely immune to the effects of the system; the overarching threat of Soviet Communism only served to ameliorate them. Twenty-five years later, the Pentagon needs to find better ways to respond to this political reality. It is likely here to stay.