Budget Director David A. Stockman, in a spirited defense of President Reagan's $974-billion proposed budget for fiscal 1986, blamed Congress Tuesday for burgeoning Pentagon spending and accused military officials of being more interested in their own retirement benefits than in national security.
"It's a scandal--it's an outrage," Stockman said, referring to the Administration's proposed expenditure of $17.8 billion for military pensions next year. "The institutional forces of the military are more concerned about protecting their retirement benefits than they are about protecting the security of the American people. If push comes to shove, they'll give up on security before they give up on retirement."
Stockman defended Reagan's $313.7-billion defense budget request on grounds that it is needed to fund weapons programs already authorized by Congress. He charged that members of Congress who advocate a defense spending freeze are "arguing with their own records" and "playing Rip Van Winkle--after five years of voting for nearly all the program elements which drive (up) the 1986 budget cost, they now shout, 'The number is too big.' "
The budget chief's remarks before the Senate Budget Committee were so blunt--he acknowledged that his criticism of the military would get him in "hot water"--that his testimony prompted widespread speculation in Congress that he might be on the verge of resigning.
The President, likewise, clearly irritated by criticism of his budget, expressed regret that he had proposed any cuts in the projected growth of federal spending. "We should have sent it up the way it was and let Congress make the cuts, and then they would have been happy," he told reporters at the White House.
Reagan will make his State of the Union address to Congress at 6 p.m. PST today.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger helped escalate the war of words by telling the House Armed Services Committee that a vote against the MX missile this spring would undermine arms control. The next vote in Congress on funding the 10-warhead MX is scheduled to occur "at a critical point of the negotiations with the Soviets," he said, and the weapon is "not just a bargaining chip."
However, the Administration's bluster did not appear to persuade members of Congress to preserve Reagan's proposed 5.9% increase after inflation in the defense budget. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) advised Congress to trim the request, while House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.)--hinting that he will oppose production of the MX--warned that the resumption of arms control talks does not give the Administration carte blanche on Pentagon spending.
Stockman admitted under questioning that his critical view of the military pension program, which provides full benefits to anyone who has served 20 years, is not shared by Reagan. "I've never been able to get anything done about military retirement downtown," he said, referring to the White House.
He said Administration officials and senior military officers support the $17.8-billion expenditure for the program--an increase of more than 10% over the current fiscal year--because they say that any cuts might hamper military recruitment. Referring to estimates that a typical lieutenant colonel can expect to receive $576,000 in retirement benefits, he added: "If you have to spend a half million or a million dollars over a lifetime to recruit someone, you'd better find a different way to recruit someone."
Weinberger disagreed with Stockman's assessment that the program is "a scandal," declaring: "There's no scandal I know of. The military retirement provisions that are in the President's budget are proper and we have no indication the President has in any way deviated from those."
Stockman challenged advocates of a freeze on defense spending to name "which previously accepted weapons systems they want to cancel, which approved missions they would forgo, which elements of the force structure they would deactivate, or which readiness and pay accounts they would under-fund." Ultimately, he predicted, Congress will shrink from the task of choosing among these programs and trim only "small amounts" from defense by deferring some expenditures.
Stockman also angered farm-state senators when he questioned whether the federal government should help refinance the debts of farmers currently threatened with bankruptcy. When Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wis.) asked him what the Administration intends to do for farmers caught in the current rural credit crisis, the budget director noted that Congress did nothing to bail out the many savings and loans that have closed or to help thousands of permanently unemployed auto workers.
"I cannot see why the taxpayers of this country should have the responsibility to go in and refinance bad debt which was willingly incurred by consenting adults," he said.
Aspin, speaking to reporters during a recess in the House Armed Services Committee hearings, questioned the need for continued support of the MX missile.
With European nations deploying American medium-range nuclear missiles and the Administration seeking $3.7 billion for research on a space-based "Star Wars" missile defense system, he said, "The question is, do you still need the MX as a bargaining chip? Just because talks are going on doesn't mean we rubber stamp their whole program."
Aspin also questioned whether the Administration would hold to its plan to stop all production of the B-1 bomber, manufactured by Rockwell International, after fiscal 1986. The Pentagon wants to buy 48 B-1s next year, bringing the fleet to its previously announced total of 100.