Crying Wolf

The Reagan Administration has cried wolf on defense spending once too often.

National security will not wither overnight because the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a 1987 budget setting military spending authority at $285 billion. Congress knows, and the White House knows, that the Senate and the House will compromise on a defense budget somewhere between the House figure and the Senate’s $301 billion.

This means that the Defense Department will get in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 roughly the same amount that it gets this year--about $100 billion more than was spent annually on the military at the start of President Reagan’s first term. Even in constant dollars the buildup is massive and ongoing--hundreds of billions of dollars since Reagan took office, heavily weighted toward multiple, often duplicative, new weapon systems.


Thus it is no wonder that the House ignored the President’s hyperbolic statement that the passage of the House budget resolution would undo all that had been achieved so far in rebuilding the defense posture since the dark days of the 1970s. “I cannot believe,” the President said, “the American people, given the facts, would approve of what the House Budget Committee would have us do.”

Members of Congress know that this is not so. Through public-opinion surveys and other means, the people signaled long ago that they thought the defense buildup had reached a high enough plateau. A recent survey conducted by Cambridge Reports Inc. found that fewer than one in four Americans believed that the government needed to spend more on defense. This is not to say that they necessarily favored a retreat, but that it would be sufficient to maintain the status quo at the new higher levels.

Even the proposed Republican compromise in the House, $293 billion, was $27 billion less than the Reagan figure. As for the Senate’s $301-billion level, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said: “It doesn’t seem adequate to the President, but I believe we can live with it.” The President issued dire warnings of the damage to be caused by a smaller defense budget, and threatened big cuts in spending in areas important to critical members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans.

The President’s list was blatantly political, focusing on sensitive areas such as readiness and personnel levels. It ignored costly research and development items such as the $4.8 billion that Reagan wants, but never had a chance of getting, for the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”).

The Administration has brought this problem on itself, in part by such empty cutback threats in the past, by overpromoting the need for a plethora of new weapon systems and by refusing to accept the basic premise that you have to pay for what you get--through new tax revenues if the funds are not otherwise available.

There is a strong case to be made for defense forces that are adequate to meet any reasonable threat, and ready to meet it. But, as we hear it, the Administration case for bigger defense budgets always boils down to a belief that the nation needs more of everything because the Soviets have more of everything. Nor did the Administration choose to participate with senators and House members in the budget process this year until the latest round of wolf-crying in the past two weeks.

The Gramm-Rudman deficit-control law set the parameters of this year’s budget debate. There still is a $200-billion deficit this year. And the Pentagon will have to live with reality--like everyone else.