Democrats Cave on Issues of Our Basic Defense

After all the threats and bluster by the Democrats throughout this contentious Congressional year, the House has managed to approve the fiscal year ’08 U.S. Defense budget by an overwhelming vote of 395 to 15. The early Sunday morning vote, no doubt timed to assure little direct media coverage, puts to an end the Democratic threats to hold up the measure until a time-table for our Iraqi troop withdrawals has been mapped out and approved.

According to recent Associated Press reports, the House “approved modest changes to President Bush’s record Pentagon budget proposal, but Democrats signaled plans to resume a more contentious debate over the Iraq war after the August recess.” And recess they did, right after the Defense bill vote. They’ll be back in September. And that in itself is very interesting, given the fact that the House Democrats criticized the heck out of Iraq’s Parliament for taking off for the month of August. Talk about hypocritical.

Nevertheless the Pentagon can breathe a sigh of relief as next year’s allotment of nearly $460 billion is now a done deal. It was, indeed, held hostage in the House until the last minute along with threats of slashing war time spending come September, but the fact is that the deed got done. In fact, the massive military measure not only represents a nearly $40 billion increase over current levels, but continues to mean that the U.S. is responsible for nearly half of all the defense spending by all the countries collectively throughout the world. Further, under the current funding appropriations, the Pentagon would get another several-billion-dollar budget increase through a companion measure covering military base construction and a recent round of base closures.

This operational budget has little to do with appropriations to fight the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those authorizations and the extra billions of dollars required to wage them will be considered separately this fall and no doubt will involve much more debate and contention.

Nor is the current fiscal year budget a perfect victory for the Administration by any means. Those charged with the operational implantation of what Congress has passed will find all kinds of strings attached to the current legislation and major annoyances. For instance, the Pentagon requested the routine ability to have transfer authority to move forward more pressing projects to top funding levels while using their own judgment to scale back others. That authority has been slashed by about $1.5 billion, effectively tying the Pentagon’s hands.

An Administration source told me that the House actions will cause “significant turbulence in implementing and maintaining many programs addressed in the annual appropriations measure.” Over $500 million was slashed by the House that would have been utilized to train and equip our allies for additional troop strength and readiness. After all Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Penn.) hand wringing talk about the tragedy of the Pentagon having troops without proper gear and readiness training, it was he and his colleagues who forced this issue right out of the budget. This item particularly would have made it possible for us to reduce our troops overseas and shared the burden more easily with our allies.

All of those items are real irritants, however, the basic safety of the United States has been well addressed in the latest overall Defense Department appropriation and that means that Americans can rest assured that we shall remain the most powerful military in the world.
Indeed, this defense legislation accomplishes, among other items, the following:

–endorses Bush’s plans for major weapons systems such as the next generation Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, even though it has been beset by cost overruns, and new funding is less than requested.

–provides $8.5 billion for missile defense, about 4 percent less than requested by Bush but $1 billion more than current spending.

–provides $2.2 billion to cover a 3.5 percent pay raise for service members. Actually, the Administration thinks that is too high and says its recommended 3 percent pay increase is sufficient.

–boosts substantially the money spent to oversee military contractors, including $24 million for the inspector general’s office.

–provides money to build five ships — with a total cost of $3.7 billion — in addition to the seven requested by the Pentagon. That too is overkill and not a needed expense at this time according to the Administration, but at least the funding for ship building was not just erased from the bill.

Thus, as Ronald Reagan would say, “Not bad, not bad at all,” especially when one considers how vocal the Administration’s critics have been about our defense matters. At least they have had the good sense not to fully take out their aggressions regarding our military involvement in Iraq upon the nation’s basic security and the on-going yearly budgets for our general defense.

What caused the Congress to carp all year and then cave on our basic security needs? In a word: politics. It is one thing to be against the Administration’s ventures in Iraq, and receive massive publicity for trashing the President at every opportunity, but it is quite another to be messing with the general American military needs. Radical dissent on that issue is a recipe for disaster at the polls and as we well know the Democrats especially pay close attention to how they perceive issues are playing out among Americans. Thus, like CNN that showers praise on the members of the military by “saluting” our troops every two minutes or so, while at the same time reporting biased stories of our war “atrocities,” Democrats know that their vote on support for the general American defense had better reflect patriotism if they wish to be around very long at all to confront the Administration on the issues of our war in Iraq.

While that issue is certainly still in play, our annual Defense Department budget needs are no longer completely mired in the political mud.