Congress' Caution on Defense

April 01, 1992

Suddenly, Pentagon-bashing is losing its allure on Capitol Hill. Members who grandly talked about doubling the already-sizable cuts President Bush has proposed for the armed forces are in retreat, drawing back from a battlefield where they discovered many of their constituents were on the other side. The issue is not how to handle military threat and menace in the post-Cold War world. It is simply jobs, jobs, jobs.

It is one thing to pound away at high-ranking officers adorned with scrambled eggs above their visors or greedy contractors who specialize in $600 toilet seats. It is quite another to terminate a defense plant that is the bedrock of the local economy, or abandon a regular forces base that provides lots of lucrative spinoff or close down a National Guard unit garrisoned with real live voters.

When a lawmaker is confronted by a choice between cashing in the long-sought peace dividend or protecting jobs in his district, the latter will win almost every time. Doves turn into hawks, liberals into military hardliners. No one can exaggerate the commitment of Long Island legislators to the F-14, of the Connecticut delegation to the Seawolf submarine, or of Californians to the B-2 Stealth bomber. Party designation diminishes in importance; loyalty to the leadership becomes non-existent.

One sign of the mood change was Congress' rebuff yesterday to a move backed by the Democratic leadership to open up the defense budget to raids by members who would prefer to divert funds to domestic civilian purposes. The vote was 238 to 187, TC humiliation for House Speaker Thomas Foley as 76 Democrats, including Marylanders Tom McMillen and Beverly Byron, deserted him. Under the 1990 budget accord, Congress could use savings from defense cuts to reduce runaway deficits. Instead, its members see more concrete, recession-fighting benefits in allowing the money to go into defense.

As a result, the Pentagon budget this year will end up a lot closer to the president's proposed $7 billion downsizing in "real" fiscal 1993 outlays rather than the $15 billion slash promoted by House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin. There still is considerable sentiment for a five-year authorization cutback larger than the administration's suggested $50 billion. But future Congresses can always change these numbers long after the 1992 election is history.

While Congress' motives may not be of the highest, the course on which it has been pushed is the right one. The U.S. military establishment should be shrunk in deliberate, considered fashion taking into account the state of the economy, the nature of potential conflicts and the onrush of technology.

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