Guest Editorial: Congress lavishes on military

Bloomberg View
March 16
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It’s as much a springtime tradition in Washington as the White House Easter Egg Roll, though not nearly as edifying: As Congress takes up the Defense Department’s budget request, lawmakers scramble to add ships, tanks and planes that the military hasn’t even asked for. This year, however, taxpayers have been promised change — and it’s easy to test how serious Congress is.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans, have pledged to rein in runaway defense spending. There are plenty of pet projects lawmakers want to add to the military’s 2017 budget, but three stand out:

•Purchasing three new littoral combat ships rather than the two the military has requested, wiping out hundreds of millions in planned savings.

•Allocating money to a special fund that would allow the Navy to build the next-generation nuclear-armed submarine without dipping into its ordinary shipbuilding budget.

•Building 10 new Virginia-class attack submarines, which cost around $2.5 billion each, instead of the nine the military requested over a five-year period.

All of these proposals have two things in common. First, their supporters say they’re critical to national defense. And second, they bring federal money to their supporters’ districts. In most cases, that first claim is simply untrue. And even when it isn’t, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the project should be approved.

The littoral combat ships, for example, have been a contracting disaster, vastly over cost and underperforming. The entire program needs a strict review to decide which one of the two versions should be canceled, or even both.

The fund would just rob Peter (the Army and Air Force) to pay Paul (the Navy). There are far better ways to free up money for the next-generation nuclear-armed submarine, including smarter contracting that would better defray spending over years and hold contractors, not taxpayers, responsible for cost overruns. Besides, if the money is set aside, it would just encourage the other branches to use this same budgeting gimmick.

The most defensible project is probably the Virginia, the world’s best conventionally armed attack sub. It’s a central part of U.S. efforts to counter Chinese expansionism in the Pacific. The Navy will eventually get up to 48 of the Virginia subs, but there’s no pressing security reason to add another to the next batch.

Which goes to the larger point: This kind of budgeting process does even worthy projects no favors.

As they consider the Pentagon’s budget, members of Congress should bear in mind that a country stays powerful by spending wisely. Further padding a military budget already at $600 billion may be politically advantageous for lawmakers. But it won’t make Americans safer.