Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election '10: Defense doesn't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

Not sure if you've heard, but there's an election in the United States today. Predictions are dire for the governing Democrats. In Nate Silver's Wednesday morning hypothetical, "Pundits are running out of metaphors to describe what just happened."
Not a wave, a hurricane. Not a hurricane, a tsunami! Not a tsunami; a tsunami from a magnitude 9.5 earthquake. Or by a meteor strike!
There's going to be change; this much we know. So what does that mean for defense? For major acquisition programs? For topline budgets?

Well, I'm gonna tell you: not very much. And now I'm gonna tell you why.

Fiscal restraint and budget tightening are not issues that break cleanly along party lines -- even when it comes to defense. Republicans and their shills in the punditocracy have made and will make a lot of noise about how defense budgets are more secure with a conservative majority. See here:
“If Republicans take over the House, I’m certainly less worried about major defense spending cuts,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, research fellow for national security studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We’ll still see efforts to rein in wasteful spending, but they’ll want to reinvest some of those savings back into other defense programs.”
Eaglen fails to mention that the SECDEF's ongoing "efficiencies initiative" is based on precisely that sort of anti-waste approach, complete with a promise that services will be free to "keep what they catch" and reinvest the savings they've identified into their own modernization accounts.
“The aim is not to reduce the defense budget but to put its funds to better use”, Gates said. He stressed that: "the services will be able to keep the savings they generate to reinvest in higher priority warfighting needs and modernization programs….It is important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign leads to steep and unwise reductions in defense."
And what of these feared "major defense cuts," the ones that have mysteriously failed to happen in the last four years of Democratic control (two of those with a Democratic administration, which -- lest we forget -- Secretary Gates serves)? Presumably we'll have nothing to worry about in a Republican Congress, as these cuts would be championed by the sort of liberal Democrat who views fiscal solvency as a national security priority, and who believes that defense spending should not be immune to the sort of austerity measures that will be applied to nearly every other form of discretionary federal spending. Liberal Democrats like these folks:
  • Sen. Tom Coburn (pdf), Republican of Oklahoma: "I appreciate that some of these thoughts [about "serious problems in our defense budget"] are controversial – even to the point that I have some reluctance in suggesting them. However, if we are to fulfill our mandate, we must make some difficult choices, not just recommend that others do so... Despite the sacrifice, heroism, and professionalism that our military personnel have shown in Iraq and Afghanistan, America‟s defenses have been decaying, despite – perhaps even because of - increasing budgets."
  • Sen. Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, who "echoed the point made by President Obama and Democratic leaders like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, that the national debt and national security are intimately related."
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions, who co-sponsored an amendment that would have placed a firm cap on discretionary spending (pdf), including defense, and the 38 other Republican Senators who joined him in supporting the amendment.
  • Kori Schake, foreign policy advisor to Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign: "Conservatives need to hearken back to our Eisenhower heritage, and develop a defense leadership that understands military power is fundamentally premised on the solvency of the American government and the vibrancy of the U.S. economy."
Oh -- those aren't liberal Democrats at all!

The defense industry knows this: they don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat, only that you're loyal and predictable. Which is to say, an incumbent. Like I said, philosophies on belt-tightening aren't necessarily consistent across caucus or conference. But you know what is consistent across both caucus and conference, on both sides of the aisle and around the 50 states? Commitment to pork. And ain't no pork like defense pork.

When Secretary Gates announced his intention to shutter Joint Forces Command as one part of his efficiencies initiative, making the sort of defense budget cut that Mackenzie Eaglen so fears, Congressional Republicans sure did flip their shit! Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) accused the administration of "selling off our military at auction to pay for its social programs." And Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA, minority whip) thought the cut should be examined with "the heaviest scrutiny." In what can surely only be called a very, very strange coincidence, Democrats also opposed the cut: Democrats... from Virginia! Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) saw "no rational basis" for the closure, while Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) complained that the proposal would be "harmful to the capabilities of the finest military in the world" and is holding up DOD nominations until he gets some answers. And then there's Rep. Glenn Nye (D-VA), in whose district JFCOM is based (and whose opponent in today's election is blaming him for the closure): he introduced legislation telling the SECDEF to get stuffed. On second thought, maybe I should revise my earlier statement: When the SECDEF decided to close JFCOM, Congressional Virginians sure did flip their shit!

When it comes to keeping frivolous, duplicative, unwanted, and unnecessary weapon systems in the budget, industry knows who to count on: Mackenzie Eaglen, Loren Thompson, and every single member of Congress -- from either party -- whose district stands to materially benefit from the survival or continuation of the program. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) loves the Boeing KC-X tanker entrant -- which would bring 7,500 jobs to Wichita -- and so does Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both from Boeing's home state of Washington, also have very good, well-developed ideas about which entrant best serves the Air Force's refueling requirements. Who loves the F136 (GE's alternate F-22 engine, to be produced in Cincinnati)? Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH), Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) do, you can bet on that! So too does Driehaus' opponent, former Republican congressman Steve Chabot (duh, also OH).
According to Driehaus, he’s defending 1,000 jobs in his district at GE’s Evendale plant near Cincinnati. And he’s painting Chabot as an opponent in [the alternate engine] case — since Chabot wins plaudits from the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, which opposes the second engine.

“The real question for voters is who’s answering to the voters of Cincinnati, and who’s answering to outside groups?” Driehaus asked.

That’s disingenuous, according to Chabot. “I supported the alternate engine program when I was in Congress for 14 years,” he told POLITICO. But he’s unapologetic that the anti-spending group has given him one of the highest lifetime scores on opposing wasteful spending — 97 percent.

“I think my support for the GE alternate engine is one of the reasons my score is 97 percent and not 100 percent,” he said, noting Driehaus’s score is just 11 percent.
Now how awesome is this?! You have a candidate for office bragging about being accused of facilitating government waste, while his opponent tries to suggest that the first guy's failure to vocally support a wasteful program should count against him! Is it any wonder that defense companies shower incumbents on Defense Approps and Armed Services with money when Congressional wannabes run around trumpeting their success at using time in elected office to wastefully channel money to programs run by the same companies they hope will jam their pockets full of campaign contributions?? Is it any wonder that these companies don't give a damn which party these candidates are going to caucus with?

Now ask yourself something else: if these incumbents somehow fail to return to Congress, do you think the Lockheeds, Boeings, Raytheons, and GEs of the world will have any compunction about shifting their financial support to the chumps who replace them?

So let's put it this way: short of a literal tidal wave or tsunami or meteor strike, Congressional support for expensive weapon systems of dubious necessity is simply not going to dry up, and it doesn't matter a tinker's damn whether Democrats or Republicans are running the show. (Loren Thompson, in a lucid moment, agrees.)

I could spend a lot of time analyzing the way this is going to impact national security policy writ large, and speculating about whether the war in Afghanistan or possible contingency operations elsewhere will go different under our new Republican overlords, but really, it would just be more of the same: if you're expecting major change in a field of governance that's primarily shaped by executive prerogatives and furthermore subject to the substantial influence of entrenched interests in government and industry, then you're probably wrong. (And really, for Republicans in Congress to take foreign/security policy down a different path, wouldn't they first need to get on the same page with one another?)

So here's my ballsy prediction for the next two years of security policy: Republicans will say that Democratic priorities are passive, stupid, and dangerous. Democrats will say that Republican priorities are aggressive, stupid, and dangerous. We'll figure out a way to leave Afghanistan that will be alternatingly criticized as too hasty and too slow. Defense contractors will continue to turn a profit. And then we'll do this all over again in 2012.


  1. Gulliver is back! This is something to hold onto in the changing fortunes of time.

  2. Gulliver:

    Did you see the George Friedman (Stratfor) piece on the next two years (as opposed to his books on the next decade or next 100 years)? In it he argues that since POTUS will be blocked legislatively for the next two years, one way he may choose to define himself is as a foreign policy president, and one way he might choose to do *that* might be by instituting a bombing campaign against Iran. I have objections both small - Friedman neglects Hezbollah and Israel - and big - I simply don't perceive Obama as a president whose decision-making calculus includes bombing foreign countries for electoral gain, even if I can't articulate why.

    The question I'd ask you relates to BRAC. We have seen military-related pork barrel politics eliminated on at least one occasion. Assume there's a fiscal crisis in the United States - an absolutely jaw-dropping assumption. Is it possible we could see a BRAC-equivalent emerge? *I agree with most of what you write.* Defense spending constitutes, I think, 20% of the budget and more (obviously) of discretionary spending, and hence attempts to obtain (shares of) that spending are great. Nonetheless, there are institutional mechanisms that have been used to circumvent defense spending distributional politics, such as a SECDEF who *has* terminated programs (as you note, no easy feat) as well as BRAC, and in extreme times - once more, say, a fiscal crisis - I wonder whether such a mechanism or mechanisms could return.


  3. Re: closing of JFCOM
    From the perspective of one employed at JFCOM - it is high time we cut some of the waste here. We have an intelligence directorate but have no area of responsibility (AOR)to be concerned about, we have a strategy directorate but again, with no AOR, why? Most of the cuts are the excessive overhead required to support a 4-star HQ - a HQ that has long outlived it's usefulness. Sure there are missions performed by parts of the command that are needed but we certainly don't need a massive 4-star HQ to do those.