Budget Brain Freeze

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DoD / Glenn Fawcett

Chris Maddaloni / CQ Roll Cal

Having been away for the past week, it’s nice to come back and see nothing on the looming defense-budget battle front has gotten any better, despite the iceberg of sequestration looming ahead of the USS Pentagon. In fact, it has gotten worse:

— House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard McKeon sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Friday saying the House committee’s proposed $554 billion military budget for next year — $8 billion above the cap set in last year’s Budget Control Act – is necessary to defend the nation (not including $88.5 billion for Afghanistan). The panel would offset the hike through cuts in domestic spending. Defense spending, well above the Cold War average, has pushed military readiness “right to the razor’s edge,” McKeon told Panetta — even without sequestration. “They cut through any fat that may have existed in the defense budget and into the muscle.”

— McKeon was responding to remarks Panetta made last Thursday declaring that the GOP action, by seeking to exempt defense spending from the mandated legal ceiling, will make a sequester more likely in January. Sequester would double cuts in planned Pentagon spending from $487 billion over the coming decade to about $1 trillion. “Defense should not be exempt from doing its share to reduce the deficit,” Panetta said. “By taking these funds from the poor, middle-class Americans, homeowners and other vulnerable parts of our American constituencies, the guaranteed results will be confrontation, gridlock and a greater likelihood of sequester.”

— Plainly, the House action is based on the belief that voters support defense spending more than the federal safety net for the poor. Yet a survey released last Thursday shows the public believes the Pentagon can be safely cut to $435 billion ��� a stunning $127 billion below this year’s total. Those surveyed conclude that the U.S. military can do without the new F-35 fighter – the most expensive weapons system in history – as well as its new bomber (now a mere artist’s rendering) and its new fleet of aircraft carriers (now being built). They’d also cut spending on nuclear weapons by 27% (the study was done by the University of Maryland, the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity).

Yet some lawmakers see a much different world than those who took the survey. “Mr. Secretary, you find yourself in a difficult job at a dangerous time,” McKeon wrote Panetta. “Between those who challenge America’s freedom and vital interests abroad and the declining resources available to meet them, you have no easy choices open to you.”

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is one of McKeon’s able lieutenants. “We’re moving dangerously close to the point,” he told military bloggers Saturday, “where I don’t think we’ll be able to guarantee the security of the United States of America.” Fact is, we’ve never been able to guarantee the nation’s security. Leadership is about assessing risk, and putting the always-limited funds where they will do the most good. If Forbes were fire chief, apparently there would be a hydrant in front of every house. Maybe two.

The irony, of course, is that Panetta is an ally of McKeon and Forbes. The fact that House Republicans apparently still don’t recognize this fact – and leverage Panetta’s steadfast opposition to the prospect of sequester into a solution to halt it – makes sequester, and the less-able military it will spawn, all the more likely.