DoD is flush with cash, but running empty of ideas

Summary: While taxes remain low for the rich and our key social and physical infrastructure decays, a few parts of the government thrive. Today Chuck Spinney, one of our most acute observers of the US military, describes how the latest deal made by Congress continues the lavish funding of the US military-industrial complex. Something to remember as you watch the Kabuki plays of Campaign 2016.

US military spending in 2015, National Priorities Project
Chart by the National Priorities Project.

Flush With Cash, Running on Empty

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
From his website, The Blaster. 21 September 2104
Posted with his generous permission

The Pentagon just won another small skirmish in its long war with Social Security and Medicare. That is the unstated message of the budget deal just announced gleefully by congressional leaders and the President.  To understand why, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.

The previous rounds of the budget game

Last January, President Obama submitted Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget to Congress, and he proposed to break the spending limits on both defense and domestic programs.  These limits are set by the long-term sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), which, for better or worse, is the law of the land, and Obama was asking Congress to change the law.

Mr. Obama wanted to finance his ramped up spending proposals by increasing taxes.  Of course, he knew that the Republican controlled Congress lusted for defense increases but hated domestic spending, particularly entitlements. Moreover, he knew increasing taxes was like waving the red cape in front of the Republican budget bulls.  So, he knew his budget would be dead on arrival.  Obama’s budget, nevertheless, had one virtue: it was up front about the intractable nature of the budget problem.  In effect, whether deliberately or not, Obama laid a trap that the Republicans merrily walked into during the ensuing spring and summer.

Obama’s gambit set into motion a tortured kabuki dance in the Republican controlled Congress.  The Republicans, as Obama well knew, wanted to keep up the appearances of adhering to the BCA.  But at the same time, they wanted desperately to shovel money into the Pentagon’s coffers.

The net result was that Obama’s proposal triggered a series of increasingly irrational Congressional negotiations, bizarre back-room deals and weird budget resolutions.  These machinations came to a head with the passage of a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that proposed to…

  • keep the Pentagon’s base budget at the BCA level of about $499 billion, but
  • pack the accounts in the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingencies Operations fund (OCO) with a programs and pork that should have been in its base budget.

The OCO is a George W. Bush gimmick, created in 2001 after 9-11 to capitalize on the national hysteria to pay for the Global War on Terror by taking its costs off the books.  All our previous wars — e.g., WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Kosovo — were funded out of the “base” defense budget and there was no need set up a special war fighting account.

The reason for the dodgy OCO ‘slush fund’ rested in the politically irresistible fact that the OCO is a separate war-fighting fund for the Pentagon that is exempt from the spending limits set by the BCA’s sequester provisions.  The net result of the smoke and mirrors by the Budget and Armed Services Committees of Congress was a total defense budget that was almost identical to Obama’s original submission, but one that was not accompanied by his domestic funding increases or his tax increases.  And this monstrosity was all wrapped up in a ridiculous pretense of adhering to the BCA limits.

Last week, President Obama seemed to close the trap by vetoing the 2016 NDAA. But this too was smoke and mirrors.

The veto put in motion yet another kabuki dance, this time behind closed doors between the White House and the leaders of Congress. The goal was to reach an overall budget deal that would avoid a government shutdown, which the majority Republicans were terrified of being blamed for on the eve of an election year.  At the same time, they wanted to dodge the BCA’s sequester bullet while they shoveled more money into the Pentagon.

That deal has now been joined, and the Republic has been saved, albeit at an unknown price.  Nevertheless, some of the sordid details of that price are now beginning to seep through the chinks in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.

Military spending

Pour America’s wealth down the drain, into private pockets

According to this report in Defense News, the elements of the budget deal raises the BCA spending caps (again) by $80 billion over next two years; including $50 billion in FY2016 and $30 billion in FY2017.  It also increases the Federal Government’s debt limit. These spending increases would be split equally between defense and domestic programs, and they would be financed by two squirrelly provisions, to wit…

The first financing gimmick cuts back Medicare and Social Security disability benefits. But if past is prologue, the cut to Medicare is likely to be reversed again next year, which is an election year — because everyone in Congress wants the endorsement of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The cut to Medicare providers was first made permanent law by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and since then Congress has reversed the scheduled provider cut 17 times.

The second financing gimmick is to sell crude oil  from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Ironically, this rather bizarre provision is peculiarly fitting to the culture of Versailles on the Potomac.  Few remember that the reserve was justified to the American people in 1975 as an insurance “cushion” to reduce the adverse effects of future rises in oil prices or supply disruptions engineered by OPEC, which is controlled by our supposed “ally” Saudi Arabia.  So why sell the reserve’s oil when prices are near record lows (adjusted for inflation) compared to those of the last fifteen to twenty years, particularly since the Saudis are flooding the market to take out the US frackers?

Who benefits is a fascinating question with all sorts of twists and turns and is not yet answered.  But it is worth recalling the 1997 Balanced Budget Act had a provision to sell the Naval Petroleum Reserve at Elk Hills (sold in 1998) – at that time, the largest privatization of government assets in history, precisely when oil prices were at their lowest level (adjusted for inflation) since the 1960s. They sold it to Occidental Petroleum which made a killing.

There is one thing the deal makes clear, however.The Pentagon’s share of the spending increases would be $33 billion in FY16, made up of a $25B increase in the Pentagon’s base budget and an $8B increase in the OCO. As for how the Pentagon’s $15 billion increase in FY17 will be allocated, the report in Defense News is silent.

So, there is good reason why champagne corks are popping in halls of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) and its lobbying affiliates on K Street.  Indeed, to celebrate the triumph, the Air Force immediately announced it awarded Northrop-Grumman a huge concurrent engineering contract (Milestone B) to design and build the first 21 of 100 new long range strike bombers, which heretofore had been shrouded in heavy secrecy. No one knows what this bomber will even look like, let alone what the program will cost, but two years ago, there were reports of a “pre-cost-growth” total program cost estimate (R&D and production) reaching $81 billion.

At least one of the MICC’s euphoric wholly-owned subsidiaries in the Fourth Estate has already written that 100 bomber is not enough, given the threats we face and the number of aging bombers that need to be replaced. 

This new bomber program is  by far the largest weapon acquisition program yet started in the 21st Century.  Yet there has been no oversight, except by its advocates in the smoke-filled, super-secret secure compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) spread around Versailles. Moreover, the bomber’s heavy concurrency means that the production-related money will quickly start flowing to hundreds of congressional districts, well before it is designed.  So, before you can say sequester next year, the Bomber, like the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be unstoppable.  And, like the F-35, it will acquire a life of its own to live on, no matter how badly it fails to meet its cost goals, its capability specifications, or its production quotas — for the simple but powerful reason that a majority in Congress are being bought off today in a way that will ensure they vote for it tomorrow.

But there is more.  The new Bomber is just the beginning of the new defense boom that Mr. Obama and Congress are launching beneath the smoke and mirrors of their budget practices.  The Pentagon already has a  bow wave of increased spending for new weapons in its R&D pipeline.

It is no accident that, a year ago, as he was departing the Pentagon, the Pentagon’s ineffectual comptroller Robert Hale characterized the new bomber as the “canary in the coal mine.” He was wringing his hands over the rapidly growing requirements for larger defense budgets in the future — requirements he helped to create.  Bow waves are a perennial feature in Pentagon planning.  I first heard the term in 1973.  The current bow wave, like its predecessors, will lead inexorably to more budget crises and more dodgy budget deals made by the best government money can buy.

Conclusion

So, once again, Mr. Obama had a shot at leading from the moral high ground, and once again, he blew it.  He had the Republicans on the ropes, with all their warts on full display, but then he squandered an opportunity to effect even a pretense of challenging a thoroughly corrupt system. Obama’s most recent performance is yet more proof that he is no change agent.  A better characterization would be that he is merely another Manchurian Candidate, whose role is to protect the interests of the factions making up the shadow government that is now running the show — what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls the US Deep State.***

Chuck Spinney

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About Chuck Spinney

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney retired from the Defense Department in 2003 after a military/civilian career spanning 33 years, 26 of them as a staff analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is author of many articles about US military and geopolitical affairs. Read his bio here.

He posts at his website, The Blaster. Here are some of his major publications…

  1. Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch (1985).
  2. Contributor to The Defense Death Spiral, 8 November 2000.
  3. Bill Moyers Interviews Chuck Spinney, 1 November 2002 — Harsh insights from inside DoD; it won an Emmy as the best news magazine show of the year.
  4. The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War“, chapter one in The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It, ed. Winslow Wheeler (2011).
  5. A contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (2012).
  6. The High Cost of the Military Technical Revolution” — Spending more to get less, forever.
  7. The Enablers: The Central Role of Faux Republicans in the Anatomy of Decline“ — review of Mike Lofgren’s book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Other posts by Chuck Spinney at the FM website…

  1. The Taliban Rope-a-Dome.
  2. Can Obama, or anyone else, outmaneuver the war advocates?
  3. Chuck Spinney describes the next phases of the Afghan War: defeat, retreat, & demobilization.
  4. Chuck Spinney explains our broken OODA loop.
  5. The Ukraine crisis gives us a peak behind the curtain into the workings of our government.
  6. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.

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