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Thou Shall Not Covet Thy General’s Dollars

The Pentagon’s budget has become sacrosanct in American politics, although iconoclasts across the spectrum suggest a reformation.

An unlikely collection of policy wonks made waves in Washington earlier this month when they released a report identifying nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. The Sustainable Defense Task Force, corralled by the Project on Defense Alternatives and commissioned by Rep. Barney Frank, included analysts from the libertarian Cato Institute, the progressive Center for American Progress, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, among others.

Their consensus across political ideology was straightforward: America’s ever-expanding defense budget is as unsustainable as our deficit.

But then there are the politicians equally united across ideology on Capitol Hill in their unlikeliness to ever cut a trillion dollars from the Pentagon’s coffers.

So how did we get here, to a place where scholars can critically analyze defense spending, but elected officials – whether Democrat or Republican – can’t? When did the Department of Defense become the lone government agency not assumed to be wasting money (or at least, given stories of $600 hammers, not an unendurable amount)? And why, when the president announces governmentwide spending freezes, must he add in the same breath that, obviously, the Pentagon doesn’t count?

Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, suggests going back to the Korean War. The military significantly contracted after World War II, the result of a defense budget that historically ebbs and flows in and out of conflict. As a result, though, the U.S. was ill-prepared for the opening battles of the Korean War.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

“The narrative is that it was a shock to the country that we needed to maintain a good, strong standing army for any eventuality,” Knight said. “That’s where it starts.”

The PDA has charted since then a defense budget that has risen and fallen with wars, but always to ever-higher plateaus. The project predicts the defense budget for fiscal year 2011 will mark a 100 percent increase, in real terms, over 1998. And the DoD is already well above the previous high-water marks for the Vietnam era and the Cold War.

Democrats, Knight said, learned their lesson from the 1980 election. Jimmy Carter, ousted by Ronald Reagan, was viewed as gutting the military. “Democrats started to say to themselves, ‘Well gee, we can’t afford to look like we’re cutting too much out of the military, we can’t afford to have them unhappy with us because look what Reagan was able to do,’” Knight said.

Defense spending then really began to balloon with a surprising benchmark, three years ahead of Sept. 11.

“What happened in 1998?” Knight asked. “Clinton was impeached.”

It was, in short, an opportune moment for DoD officials to push a weak president into a 10 percent budget increase on the eve of an election in which Democrats were hoping not to be turned out of office.

“Then you come up to a final, traumatic thing, 9/11, and that just totally ended all politics around managing the Pentagon. It was basically, at that point, the Pentagon gets whatever it wants, and more,” Knight said. Many of the added resources have not been directly tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Case in point: “It makes no sense as a defense analyst that you would invest a penny in a new fighter aircraft to fight terrorists.”

Parallel to this history, the U.S. military has also redefined its mission over the last two decades. After the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, the military replaced its one expansive enemy with more ambitious and wide-ranging goals around the globe. It “pushed the security goal posts forward,” according to another PDA report.

All of these trends – at the Pentagon and in politics – suggest a runaway defense budget with no hope for control. But Knight senses a shift coming. The public is growing fatigued with the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially as their price tags push up the federal deficit.

And it’s one thing when Barney Frank, a safe congressman from a Democratic district in Massachusetts, broaches the topic. But majority leader Steny Hoyer picked up the theme this week as well.

“Any conversation about the deficit that leaves out defense spending,” he said in a speech at the D.C. think tank Third Way on Tuesday, “is seriously flawed before it begins.”

This was PDA’s hope: The politicians probably were never going to cut the trillion dollars, but at least they might start talking about it.