HOW MUCH should America spend on its military? Listening to Republicans, you would think the answer was clear: much more than whatever we are currently spending. The charge that President Clinton has "hollowed out" the armed forces has become a favorite among Republican members of Congress. The allegation has also been a staple in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, with all the major candidates scoring the administration for its meager defense expenditures.
The armed services, of course, have been plagued by budgetary shortfalls, rapidly thinning ranks, and aging stocks of equipment. Nonetheless, the Republican indictment is actually an indictment against itself. If the United States today fields a hollow military, the blame lies as much with Congress as it does with the White House. The difference between the two is merely this: Where President Clinton has compelled the military to do "more with less," Republicans are proposing that it do less with less. And they are promoting this line not only for reasons of frugality but also, oddly enough, on ideological grounds.
To begin with, there is the issue of military spending. Consider the latest Republican proposals. The budget resolution Congress passed in March actually provides for lower levels of defense expenditures over the next decade -- to the tune of $ 100 billion -- than the Clinton administration proposed. True, House Republicans claim to have added $ 8 billion to the president's defense request for the coming fiscal year. But when it comes to spending outlays -- that is, the actual amount the Pentagon may spend in a given year, as opposed to theoretical future expenditures -- they have provided the military with seven billion fewer dollars than the White House.
To be fair, House GOP leaders in May pledged an additional $ 3 billion in defense funds to rebuild what they termed our "hollowed out" military. Alas, not a month later, those same leaders quietly announced a change of heart: The funds would be allocated instead to the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and other agencies. For not only had we been spending more than is necessary on defense, argued junior Republicans (reviving a canard from the 1970s), but we had been doing so at the expense of vital domestic programs that were being bled dry. "Thirteen billion [dollars] is more than Social Security pays in an entire year for seniors' insurance, for benefits for kids," protested Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, during subsequent debate on an emergency defense bill. "Thirteen billion would pay Social Security benefits for every African American retiree." Or as fellow low Republican Lee Terry put it when voting against the same bill, "The United States has domestic priorities that must be protected."
A few weeks after that, despite predictions of a trillion dollar surplus, congressional Republicans announced that none of that windfall would be employed to strengthen the very institution whose weakness they had been deploring. It would be used instead for an $ 800 billion tax cut, which could lower defense spending a further $ 200 billion over the next decade. Clinton, by contrast, had pledged to increase the level of military spending by $ 127 billion over the same time period. Thus, the unveiling of the GOP tax plan led to an unusual bit of political theater -- with the president attacking Republicans, with some credibility, for their "reckless" and "dramatic" proposed cuts in the defense budget. Then, too, there was the curious spectacle of senior military leaders pleading with the White House to protect the armed services from a Republican Congress, urging Clinton aides "not to sell out the Pentagon."
If the sheer scale of this year's Republican cuts alarmed the Pentagon, the criteria by which weapons programs were scaled back to produce those cuts proved equally unsettling. The most notable item to lose its funding was the F-22 jet fighter -- now set for manufacture after years of research and development and $ 18 billion in sunk costs. The plane, superior in every respect to the Joint Strike Fighter, was the first such project to be canceled by Congress. (It would have been the second, had defense hawks -- many of whom were Democrats -- not barely succeeded in deflecting an earlier attempt by John Kasich and 80 like-minded Republicans to kill the B-2 stealth bomber.)
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