Elusive Picture of Defense Spending Encumbers GOP

Article excerpt

Tall, affable Buck McKeon sits, gavel in hand, at the turbulent intersection of two conflicting Republican tendencies. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee embodies the party's support for a "strong" defense, which is sometimes measured simply by the size of the Pentagon's budget. But the 35 Republicans on his 62-member committee include 13 first-term legislators, some of whom embody the tea party's zeal for cutting government spending.

The United States spends almost as much on military capabilities as the rest of the world spends, and at least six times more than the second-biggest spending nation (China). But McKeon says, "A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline." And: "I've been around a long time and I've seen us cut defense investments over the years after wars. ... But I've never before seen us make cuts during a war. Cuts to defense investment in the midst of two wars is unacceptable." Asked, however, about the immediate future of the defense budget, he says, after a long pause: "It's probably going to be smaller."

Since fiscal 2001, what is called the military's "baseline budget" has increased 80 percent to $534 billion. That number is, however, much less than what is actually being spent.

The Obama administration wants to cut $78 billion over five years, in addition to cuts already planned. McKeon and others are resisting, starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to halt work on a $14.4 billion Marine program for a new Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a 39-ton landing craft and tank that can deliver 17 Marines in an amphibious assault.

Although the Marines' last opposed landing was in 1950 in Korea at Inchon, some legislators think ending the EFV program strikes at the Marines' core mission. McKeon wonders: What if the next "denied space" the Marines must enter is along the Strait of Hormuz? …