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Smarter spending at the Pentagon would satisfy defense and deficit hawks

The House Budget Committee's original, more disciplined approach to the Pentagon budget deserves to prevail

The Pentagon wants more money. But the politics of Pentagon spending have gotten so contorted that it's hard to know who the important players are, much less how much money the department is likely to get when this year's budget wrangling is finally over. The final number will probably have less to do with partisan divisions than with resolving the split on the issue that exists inside the Republican Party.

One faction — led by Armed Services Committee chairmen Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) — wants to add tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon budget beyond the spending caps that are part of current law. Another group, including but not limited to a block of 30 to 40 Republican deficit hawks in the House, wants the Pentagon to live within the current caps.

The House and Senate Budget Committees muddied the waters last week when they introduced initial budget resolutions that take radically different approaches to Pentagon spending. The House version recommended keeping the caps on the Pentagon's base budget, but throwing as much as an extra $40 billion into the war budget, which is not subject to spending limits. Former White House budget official Gordon Adams has rightly described this misuse of the war budget — known in Washington as the Overseas Contingency Operations account — as “the most cynical and fraudulent use yet made of the OCO budgetary gimmick.”

On the Senate side, Budget Committee Chairman Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) started off on the right foot when he presented a resolution that keeps the current caps on Pentagon spending and leaves the OCO account alone at the already generous $51 billion proposed by President Obama. Unfortunately, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) undercut Enzi's proposal by sponsoring an amendment that would allow the Senate to follow the House's lead and stuff the war budget with tens of billions in excess funds. Graham's maneuver just moves the fight onto the Senate floor, where it's not clear that this jury-rigged approach to Pentagon spending will be adopted.

The House Budget Committee's original, more disciplined approach deserves to prevail. It would not only provide a better deal for taxpayers, but it also would offer the possibility of reforming long-standing practices that have led to tens of billions in waste, fraud and abuse at the Department of Defense.

Defense hawks and deficit hawks alike should be able to agree that the Pentagon should do a better job of spending the half a trillion dollars per year it already receives. As things stand, the department can't pass a simple audit. As a result, the Pentagon's top leadership can't accurately answer basic questions, such as how many contractors the department employs, how much equipment it has or whether it is being overcharged for basic items.

A bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) aims to change the current, unacceptable state of affairs by imposing financial penalties on units within the Pentagon that aren't audit-ready. It's the least Congress can do to force the Pentagon to get its financial house in order. Republican stalwarts such as Grover Norquist have already spoken out on behalf of the bill.

Another area of potential savings at the Pentagon that many Republicans should be able to support is reducing the department's top-heavy bureaucracy. Pentagon civilians, private contractors and military personnel assigned to non-military tasks now total about 1.8 million people, more than one and a half times the number of active duty troops in the entire U.S. military. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) has introduced a bill that would cut Pentagon civilian personnel by 15%, at a savings of tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.

There are many other places to wring savings out of the current budget, from scaling back programs such as the costly, under-performing F-35 combat aircraft to implementing reforms to rein in the military's runaway healthcare costs.

Defense hawks and deficit hawks in the Republican Party should come together to support common-sense reforms that will free up existing Pentagon resources so they can be applied to urgent security tasks. If they do so, the Pentagon will have more than enough money to defend the country without breaking the budget caps.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

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