Will Tea Partiers fall for defense spending-cut ruse?

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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John Bresnahan’s latest Politico article must have them high-fiving in the White House. Entitled “Gates may get lift from tea parties,” the story concludes: “Key tea party players, on and off Capitol Hill are expressing a willingness to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block if it will help rein in federal spending and eliminate a projected trillion-dollar-plus budget deficit.”

But celebrations by those hoping to cut defense spending even further are premature. Both the headline and the article’s conclusion are probably more wrong than right.

An important study by the Sam Adams Alliance provides some interesting data on the leadership of the Tea Party. According to the alliance, 79.6 percent see defense as a top issue. Furthermore, 91.7 percent see the budget as “very important.” That suggests overwhelmingly that the leadership of the movement believes Washington ought to live up to its Constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense,” but that government ought to be limited and federal spending restrained. That would translate into support for Obama’s defense policies, provided they achieved those ends. They don’t.

Tea Party leaders might have noticed that, when it comes to spending cuts, the White House’s only target is the defense budget. Apparently, all other government spending is the model of efficiency. Meanwhile, in the world according to this administration, the Pentagon budget is riddled with unnecessary spending, a veritable rat’s nest of waste, fraud and abuse.

In reality, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is playing the Pentagon-rife-with-waste-fraud-and-abuse card to distract from the fact that the White House is gutting defense spending.

That is not to say that we’re getting the biggest possible bang for our defense bucks. By streamlining military logistics, for example, the Pentagon could save up to $32 billion a year. Gates, however, has done little to tackle real efficiency issues. Indeed, some of his claimed reforms will actually make Defense procurement less—not more—efficient. After examining the Gates-engineered reforms to the acquisition process, long-time defense analyst Loren Thompson threw-up his hands declaring, “That’s the essence of our current acquisition process—all politics, all the time.”

Last week, Gates announced that the Pentagon will find $100 billion in savings. That would be great if Gates actually had billions in waste identified. He does not.

What Gates does have is a $100 billion shortfall between what he needs, and what the administration is willing to let him spend. And so, he is doing is what every Pentagon official since McNamara has done to close huge budget gaps. He says they’ll make up the difference by eliminating “waste,” which always just-so-happens to equal the amount of money they don’t have.

Gates talks so much about making “efficiency gains,” not because he has a plan for making efficiency gains but to hide the fact that he does not have a big enough budget to pay for current operations, maintain force readiness, and prepare adequately for future threats. No, defense should never be given a blank check. But anyone who thinks that Gates is championing good government when he cuts vital defense programs has been fooled by an empty mantra of “reform.”

Perhaps the most important finding of the Sam Adams Alliance is this insight into Tea Party leadership: “Far from holding radical or ill-informed views, they are well-educated. …” The smart money says that if Bresnahan thinks these folks are going to be fooled by “efficiency gain” smokescreen, he’s wrong.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.