The clock is ticking. The 12-member congressional supercommittee has until Nov. 23 to cut the federal budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Its failure would trigger an automatic deficit package including an estimated $450 billion cut in Pentagon spending.
Why shouldn’t the Defense Department share in the spending cuts and help the special committee meet its deadline? Gretchen Morgenson made a stab in that direction in the New York Times. She proposed that the government should stop reimbursing the costs of pensions and other retirement benefits at defense contractors, at an estimated saving of $30 billion over 10 years.
The defense contractors are enormously profitable. Their government contracts promise reimbursement when the contractors shore up their underfunded pension systems as a cost of doing business. Ms. Morgenson wrote: “Considering how much ordinary Americans have lost in their own retirement accounts — losses that the government does not cover — reimbursing contractors looks like classic corporate welfare.”
The estimated $30 billion saving could be a starter, but the committee could go a lot further in the same direction. If $450 billion from the Pentagon could serve as a threat, why couldn’t it play a part in the committee’s assignment? As Willie Sutton is supposed to have said about the banks when asked why he robbed them, “That’s where the money is.”
Congress has a bad habit of promoting arms programs that the Pentagon doesn’t want. For example, the Pentagon could cut back on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, billed as the next-generation supersonic aircraft for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, with a cost of $238 billion and an estimated $1 trillion over 50 years. It has fallen behind schedule, risen above budget, and in one model suffered cracks in its bulkhead. The Obama administration has eliminated a needless and expensive alternate engine being built by GeneralElectric and Rolls Royce.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, just before his retirement last June, showed how he could cut back unnecessary weapons programs. He fought against dozens of new ships, planes, helicopters and armored vehicles that he said the military didn’t need but were foisted on him by lawmakers.
As in the case of the F-35, members of Congress get busy estimating how many jobs are at stake in their states and districts and lobby against cutbacks. Manufacturer Lockheed Martinhas invited members of Congress to visit its Fort Worth plant to sit in the plane’s cockpit, the Associated Press reported.
Jobs, jobs, jobs is the current mantra, but we need jobs that produce things that are useful, not destructive. We no longer call defense contractors merchants of death, and of course defense production is essential. But President Eisenhower made a wise and courageous point when he warned against the influence of the “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”