GOP Congress Plays Pentagon Budget Games

Despite a nearly $600 billion military budget, congressional Republicans are demanding even more money for the Pentagon, while rejecting cuts in spending for military bands and resisting emergency funds to fight the Zika virus, notes Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

Our military is falling apart. How do we know this? Because Republican candidates have told us so: According to Jeb Bush, “We’re gutting our military.” Marco Rubio has said, “For years, we have systematically underfunded our military.” Not to be outdone, Donald Trump boldly asserts “Our military is a disaster.”

The military brass stokes this perception. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with his Republican questioners during a hearing on Capitol Hill in March that the military has significant readiness problems across the services. Anecdotal evidence, such as cannibalizing parts from ships to keep deployed naval forces operational, would seem to buttress the case.

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The point of these arguments is to convince us that the Pentagon’s $596-billion budget is inadequate. Yet the casual reader might be surprised to learn that our allegedly cash-strapped military spends $437 million annually on live music: DOD coughs up three times the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts to support bands.

What’s more, the Army uses 4,350 full-time “musician personnel” – the equivalent of an entire combat brigade doing nothing but playing music. (Meanwhile, it is in the process of reducing its total number of brigade combat teams to 33 worldwide).

While our military is paying $87,500 for Steinway pianos, it must also deplete its global reserve stockpile of smart-bombs to continue the campaign against the Islamic State. This is a glaring example of misplaced priorities, but it elicits this response from Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee: “Military bands are vital to recruiting, retention and community relations, and they provide patriotic and inspirational music to instill in soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines the will to fight and win.” One would think high explosives might impress the enemy a bit more.

Congress loves to collect horror stories about alleged underfunding of the military, but does virtually nothing to exercise its constitutional oversight in directing the Pentagon to get its priorities straight. It fails to effectively use its powers to proactively deter waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon such as the “Fat Leonard” bribery case. This failure is just a subset of a larger breakdown of congressional governance in the age of hyper-polarization, gridlock and shutdowns.

Congress entered its Memorial Day recess without funding Zika virus prevention, even as flooding in Texas and South Carolina created conditions ripe for rapid mosquito propagation. This delay is serious because the first case of Zika-related microcephaly has now been reported in the United States.

It is noteworthy that the amount DOD spends on bands would go some distance toward closing the gap between the administration’s Zika request of $1.9 billion and Senate-approved funding. The House, unfortunately, is nowhere near even the Senate amount: it would draw the entire $622 million it approved from money set aside to fight Ebola. Some experts have warned that using Ebola funding to fight Zika is a dangerous and shortsighted diversion of resources.

It should be remembered that Congress initially dragged its feet in approving the Ebola funding in 2014. As Michael Gerson reminds us, during that episode, the main contribution of the conservative movement, to which congressional Republicans pay such heed, was to retail conspiracy theories designed to panic the public and question the motives of the administrators charged with combatting the disease.

One cannot even begin to exhaust the examples of Congress’s refusal to do its job in the public interest. Senate Republicans’ current unwillingness to discharge their constitutional duty to consider U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court is just one of the more obvious instances. This kind of capricious and incompetent governance by the legislative branch cannot go on in a country that is a military and economic superpower.

I used to revere Congress as a bulwark of our constitutional system. But after nearly three decades as a congressional staff member, most of it on the budget committee, I left in despair: the final straw was when a band of Tea Party zealots became determined to drive the country into a sovereign credit default – a pointless act of recklessness.

Which brings us back to the alleged military underfunding that congressional Republicans decry. In order to avert a credit default in 2011, President Obama agreed to a deal requiring across-the-board government cuts (“sequestration”), including military programs.

Congressional Republicans instigated sequestration with their Kamikaze tactics on the debt limit, but now they insist it was all somehow Obama’s policy. That’s par for the course: for congressional Republicans, like toddlers, it’s never, ever their fault.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appeared in January 2016.

8 comments for “GOP Congress Plays Pentagon Budget Games

  1. June 9, 2016 at 17:31

    Military bands have already been cut many times over the last 30 years. In turn, these cuts have made military bands far less efficient as they now must travel greater distances to meet mission needs and members must move far more frequently to meet manpower requirements. Those mission needs exist just as before such cuts, including funeral support, honors at big ceremonies and national events, regular deployments for both troop support but also international military diplomacy, military support for major U.S. Embassy initiatives around the word, and overall applications of our Defence Deterrence, Whole of Government, and other soft-power strategies. If the main reason to reduce military bands is budget, at 0.075% of total DoD spending, it seems disingenuous given DoD’s repeated requests for Congress to grant permission to close bases and excess infrastructure to save billions. At present, ~20% excess is costing DoD billions every year but Congress refuses to grant this money-saving option to aid in our national security. Until they get serious about that, I question whether anyone should take seriously the cause of reducing military bands for the purposes of budget, especially when their purpose is so dutiful, unique, and unparalleled in enhancement of military culture and mission needs. It’s low hanging fruit that’s easy to eliminate for convenient optics. But it’s also low hanging fruit that nourishes a lot of people and in very important ways. If we can waste billions annually without BRAC, we can afford military bands to honor our fallen, their families, and support international diplomacy efforts. MORE HERE:

  2. Realist
    June 8, 2016 at 14:59

    I’ve got an idea that should save us probably a couple trillion dollars in the short term on the military budget: pull our freakin’ troops out of the freakin’ Middle East. Save even more: Stop trying to war on Russia, China and Iran. Here’s another one: Renew the nuclear arms treaty with Russia rather than infusing another trillion dollars into rebuilding the entire nuclear stockpile. A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon the national debt stops crushing our future. Useful idea, even if you only understand money and couldn’t care less about human life. Is such thinking permitted in America any more?

    • Bill Bodden
      June 8, 2016 at 15:27

      Good ideas, Realist, but the military-industrial complex and their courtesans in Washington are not going to go along with them.

    • Joe B
      June 8, 2016 at 16:21

      I would suggest that an intelligent president recognize that the US is headed for a major restructuring by violence if not otherwise, and simply overreach his powers to avoid a revolution:

      1. Turn over the mass media to the universities temporarily; set up and require regulated mass media corporations and return the mass media to those (to avoid politicizing the universities);
      2. Invalidate most congressional elections as money-influenced and force new elections with the proviso that all election funds be traced to limited individual contributions via a federal agency;
      3. Dismiss most of the corrupt federal judiciary for failures of “good conduct” (or treason for Citizens United etc.) and appoint liberal attorneys to replace them;
      4. Immediately discontinue all secret wars and destabilization operations and use the bloated military budget and staff and equipment for humanitarian projects in developing nations;
      5. Embargo Israel completely and join the UN to demand an immediate two-state implementation, and if they refuse after reduction to poverty, destroy all of their weapons, invade. and set up the solution, with Israel to be governed by the UN for three generations; consider similar treatment for Saudi Arabia;
      6. Require Congress and the states to pass amendments to restrict funding of elections and mass media to limited registered individual contributions, violations to be taken as acts of war against the US; any states refusing to ratify to have all federal aid cut off except individual assistance.
      7. Promptly set up full military and economic relations with Russia and China, and set about resolving all regional power disputes under UN authorities.
      8. Raise the income tax rate to 100% at 150K gross income, and enjoy the screams from the greedy crooks.
      9. If Congress cannot handle these essential advances, throw them into Guantanamo and hold new elections until they do.

      All of these would be historic advances with no negative effects of significance, so that such an episode of executive overreach would be the least-cost path to reform compared with a revolution.

      Probably there are a thousand qualified persons who could serve as President to get these things done, and we do not hear of them because we do not have the tools of democracy, nor democracy itself. So the executive overreach is merely the restoration of democracy, without even “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” as Jefferson thought necessary every generation.

      • timothy price
        June 9, 2016 at 17:40

        Nice! Only thing, don’t raise the tax to 100%. Give that bastards enough to keep them bringing in the cash.

  3. Zachary Smith
    June 8, 2016 at 14:50

    Not to be outdone, Donald Trump boldly asserts “Our military is a disaster.”

    In one sense this is exactly true, but when I went to the link the author there admitted it was impossible to know what the blowhard Trump was talking about.

    Which brings us back to the alleged military underfunding that congressional Republicans decry. In order to avert a credit default in 2011, President Obama agreed to a deal requiring across-the-board government cuts (“sequestration”), including military programs.

    Obama didn’t have to agree with the nonsense, but he did anyhow. IMO he must fully share the blame with the worthless Republicans.

  4. Bill Bodden
    June 8, 2016 at 11:50

    The real deficit at the Pentagon is intelligence. Not the intelligence generated by the various spook services in Washington but the kind of intelligence that boosts smart decisions. Consider some of our recent wars:

    Vietnam: With a budget that was only a fraction of what the Pentagon had to fight this war, the Viet Cong prevailed.

    Afghanistan: Same situation – normal and all screwed up. The US military and its allies have been bogged down in this quagmire for fifteen year fighting local militias whose funding is only a fraction of what the Pentagon has spent on the F-35 – a plane that doesn’t work.

    Iraq: Top candidate for the debacle of the 21st Century. In American history it ties with the Civil War. The eventual cost for this war has been estimated to be as much as five trillion dollars. What did our military accomplish? Almost five thousand of their own personnel dead with who knows how many thousands wounded physically and psychologically and, in many cases, neglected. The “dominoes” didn’t fall in Vietnam, but they are falling in the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, maybe Jordan will be next. Millions of refugees trying to escape at the very real risk of their lives. Iraq has been the gift that continues to give – Al-Qaeda franchises all over the place with ISIS the alpha dog in that pack. Were the top brass at the Pentagon dumb enough to buy into the Bush Administration’s lies to get that war rolling?

    • Bill Bodden
      June 8, 2016 at 13:41

      Did the leaders in the Pentagon not have sufficient intelligence to know that going to war against Iraq contravened the Nuremberg Principles about refusing to obey immoral and illegal orders?

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