The Defense Department has enjoyed a long budgetary heyday, but
the golden times may be nearing an end as the Iraq war, which has
been eating up $10 billion a month, starts winding down and
recession pressures force federal budgeteers to rein in spending.
That's the conventional wisdom, at least.
But defense spending won't drop anytime soon, experts predict.
Even as the nation gasped over a $1.2 trillion federal budget for
this fiscal year, estimated Tuesday by the Congressional Budget
Office, President-elect Obama this week signaled his resolve to
spend the country out of recession. In the short term, that probably
means more money for defense.
It may be impractical, for several reasons, to cut defense
spending for the first year or two of the Obama administration,
One is that a de-escalating war in Iraq won't immediately curtail
expenditures needed to keep troops and equipment whole. Defense
Secretary Robert Gates, in a New Year's Eve request to Congress,
asked for an additional $70 billion to pay for war costs. At the
same time, ramped-up military operations in Afghanistan under Mr.
Obama will cost the US government more.
Perhaps the biggest reason defense spending won't fall anytime
soon is that it would be too hard for congressional lawmakers to
justify cuts to defense during a recession, and lawmakers will
instead seek to retain and renew defense contracts - and keep
thousands of people in their jobs.
"I would be very doubtful that Congress will cut any major
procurement programs, because the Democrats would not want to be
accused of putting anyone out of work as they put together an
economic stimulus package," says Dov Zakheim, who served as the
Pentagon's chief financial officer until 2004. Federal spending on
defense could rise as much as 2 percent over the next couple years,
says Mr. Zakheim, now a consultant in Washington.
Still, Obama made a point Wednesday of saying his administration
would dedicate itself to rooting out inefficiencies in government
and finding ways to streamline operations. The Pentagon budget,
which accounts for almost 47 percent of all federal discretionary
spending, would seem to be a prime place to start. This week, the
Government Accountability Office reported that every year the
military stashes $7.5 billion in unneeded parts in Navy warehouses.
The Pentagon's baseline budget for the current fiscal year is
$514 billion, but with Secretary Gates's $70 billion request, war
funding will top $136 billion in additional defense costs for 2009.
Other factors are also at play. …