Defense spending should not be a sacred cow 

As applause rings in the ears of newly elected House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, it is necessary to sound a note that many on the GOP side are likely to greet with the enthusiasm they would offer to a skunk.

House Republicans say they plan to keep their promise of returning spending to 2008 levels, and so far they have given us no reason to doubt them. By standing up against Democrats’ spending plans in the lame-duck session, they have already accomplished part of their goal. But their public commitment at this point extends exclusively to the very limited category of “nondefense discretionary spending,” which makes up only 15 percent of the federal budget.

Discretionary defense spending now exceeds $550 billion annually. We were fully funding the military in 2008, and there is no good reason we cannot spend at the same level in 2011.

This is one area where Republicans and President Barack Obama possibly can work together constructively. They should listen to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said in a May speech that “as a matter of principle and political reality, the Department of Defense cannot go to America’s elected representatives and ask for increases each year unless we have done everything possible to make every dollar count.”

Gates decried expensive weapons development programs that pursue “the limits of what technology will bear without regard to cost or what a real-world enemy can do.” He added that the unquestioning assumption that more is better has led to “$20 million howitzers, $2 billion bombers and $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers,” which burden taxpayers and decrease the quantities the Pentagon can afford.

Gates even took on the sacred cow of veterans’ health spending, stating that “many working-age military retirees, who are earning full-time salaries on top of their full military pensions, are opting for TRICARE (the military health insurance program) even though they could have health coverage through their employer, with taxpayers picking up most of the tab.” And why would they stay on TRICARE? The premiums have not risen in a decade.

Attempts to deal with Pentagon waste, fraud and abuse have produced very mixed results and multiple roadblocks in every previous Congress. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said that “everything’s got to be on the table,” for which he should be commended. Republicans should be more concrete here. If the nondefense sector of the civilian bureaucracy can be cut (and it should be), Republicans can take the ax to what Gates called the Pentagon’s 40 percent bureaucratic overhead, along with the multimillions of dollars in defense earmarks Congress appropriates despite Pentagon objections.

Such cuts will rankle more than a few pork-barrel-addicted incumbents for now, but voters will reward Republicans’ courage if they dare to challenge the status quo.

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