The past and future, gobbling up money today

January 24, 1996|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- As budget battles continue on Capitol Hill over the girth and role of the federal government, awed respect is in order for the long-standing ability of two government departments to elude scrutiny, let alone the spending reductions sweeping through Washington.

They are the present and past of America's military establishment, the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, a symbiotic duo, with less than ever to do but more money than ever to do it.

While Congress and the White House have set the rest of the federal government on a downward fiscal trajectory toward the balanced-budget goal of the year 2002, the spending plans for the two departments are pointed upward, a testimonial to their political untouchability.

The crippled state of the ex- Soviet Union might be regarded as justification for redeploying some of the Pentagon's wealth to other purposes. But, as pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, by Lawrence J. Korb, formerly a senior defense official, Congress' seven-year spending plan for the Pentagon rises from $262 billion at present to $281 billion in the year 2002.

Mr. Korb notes that our 15 NATO allies currently spend about $150 billion on defense and Japan spends $42 billion, for a total of $454 billion by the U.S. and its friends. Defense spending by Russia is estimated at $80 billion, less than one-fifth of the U.S.-NATO-Japan figure.

The Pentagon's commanding hold on the Treasury is matched by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

More for fewer

Though the passage of time is steadily reducing the veterans' population, from 30 million in 1980 to 26 million at present, according to the New York Times, the veterans department is expanding. Many of its nationwide network of 173 hospitals are awash with empty beds, but President Clinton has proposed a $700 million increase for the Department, and Congress has voted a $400 million boost.

The veterans-hospital system grew rapidly following World War II, when facilities that could serve the needs of returning servicemen and women were in short supply in many parts of the country. But the post-war boom in community hospital construction soon created a surplus of beds. And the rapid spread of insurance provided by employers, plus Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, gave veterans a choice when it came to health care.

So few of them opted for the veterans hospitals that the criteria for admission were relaxed to provide treatment for non-service-connected disabilities. Even so, empty beds continue to plague the veterans hospital system.

Because of their limited patient loads, some of them have been found deficient in the quality of their surgical care, and some surgical units have been shut down.

Jealous guardians

Nonetheless, the system endures, thanks to jealous guardianship by veterans organizations and timidity by politicians who know better but don't want to take on the phony but damaging accusation of ingratitude to the men and women who served their country.

The timidity is, of course, compounded by President Clinton's vulnerability on the issue of military service. He can't afford to tangle with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion on this issue.

The irony of money glut for the Pentagon and veterans' health care is that the funds could be better used for promoting national security and the health of veterans. While federal agencies that support research of economic value are being forced to cut back their spending, the Defense Department is budgeted for a major increase in missile-defense research -- widely regarded as a fool's errand by independent analysts.

No matter. Congress has voted a 24 percent increase in missile-defense research, bringing the total to $3 billion. That's roughly equivalent to the budget of the National Science Foundation, the main government bankroll for scientific research and training in universities.

The billions that are being squandered on the under-utilized veterans-hospital system could ease the reductions that are planned for Medicare and Medicaid.

The budget negotiators say that everything is on the table. But that's not really so. The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are beyond political reach, and appear destined to stay that way.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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