Like much else that comes out of Congress, the $288 billion defense authorization approved this week is a mixture of success and failure, a combination of good sense and political pork, with some cuts and some unnecessary spending.
The final measure is some $19 billion less than Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had requested. The apparent end of the Cold War has made it possible to reduce the once untouchable Pentagon budget, despite the continuing crisis in the Persian Gulf.Moreover, this appears to be only the beginning of defense cuts. Unless a shooting war erupts with Iraq, next year's military budget is likely to see more shrinkage.
The invasion of Kuwait inflated the defense budget by about $5 billion more than it might have been otherwise, but most of the congressional philosophy about security seems centered in the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. If that thaw continues, the Pentagon will see even less money in the future.
Yet there is a curious paradox in the defense budget. Despite the perceived fading of the Soviet threat, Congress failed to get rid of any of the complex and horrendously expensive weapons systems designed with the Soviets in mind. And while cutting 80,000 military personnel from the armed forces, it refused to close any bases.
Costly weapons systems and military bases normally have their genesis in protecting the nation and meeting national security needs. But when the time comes to consider cutting such items, they are seen - and stoutly defended - by Congress as jobs programs in the states and districts of senators and representatives
For example, proposals to dump the B-2 stealth bomber, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the MX rail garrison missile, or new Trident missiles were each approved either in the House or Senate. But eventually all such cuts were defeated because these weapons mean jobs and contracts back home.
And Congress ducked the base closing question as politically too touchy. Once again, it handed the responsibility to a special commission. The commission is supposed to come up with another take-it-all-or-leave-it package of base closures.
Future questions about defense spending are going to be more difficult, especially if a new era of peace with the Soviet Union becomes a full-fledged reality. At some point, Congress will have to face up to the fact that it cannot keep approving a bloated defense budget just because it produces jobs for the folks at home.