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GOP Congress Plays Pentagon Budget Games

Despite a nearly $600 billion military budget, congressional Republicans are demanding even more money for the Pentagon.

Our military is falling apart. How do we know this? Because Republican candidates have told us so: According to Jeb Bush, “We’re gutting our military.” Marco Rubio has said, “For years, we have systematically underfunded our military.” Not to be outdone, Donald Trump boldly asserts “Our military is a disaster.”

The military brass stokes this perception. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with his Republican questioners during a hearing on Capitol Hill in March that the military has significant readiness problems across the services. Anecdotal evidence, such as cannibalizing parts from ships to keep deployed naval forces operational, would seem to buttress the case.

What’s more, the Army uses 4,350 full-time “musician personnel” — the equivalent of an entire combat brigade doing nothing but playing music. (Meanwhile, it is in the process of reducing its total number of brigade combat teams to 33 worldwide).The point of these arguments is to convince us that the Pentagon’s $596-billion budget is inadequate. Yet the casual reader might be surprised to learn that our allegedly cash-strapped military spends $437 million annually on live music: DOD coughs up three times the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts to support bands.

While our military is paying $87,500 for Steinway pianos, it must also deplete its global reserve stockpile of smart-bombs to continue the campaign against the Islamic State. This is a glaring example of misplaced priorities, but it elicits this response from Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee: “Military bands are vital to recruiting, retention and community relations, and they provide patriotic and inspirational music to instill in soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines the will to fight and win.” One would think high explosives might impress the enemy a bit more.

Congress loves to collect horror stories about alleged underfunding of the military, but does virtually nothing to exercise its constitutional oversight in directing the Pentagon to get its priorities straight. It fails to effectively use its powers to proactively deter waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon such as the “Fat Leonard” bribery case. This failure is just a subset of a larger breakdown of congressional governance in the age of hyper-polarization, gridlock and shutdowns.

Congress entered its Memorial Day recess without funding Zika virus prevention, even as flooding in Texas and South Carolina created conditions ripe for rapid mosquito propagation. This delay is serious because the first case of Zika-related microcephaly has now been reported in the United States.

It is noteworthy that the amount DOD spends on bands would go some distance toward closing the gap between the administration’s Zika request of $1.9 billion and Senate-approved funding. The House, unfortunately, is nowhere near even the Senate amount: it would draw the entire $622 million it approved from money set aside to fight Ebola. Some experts have warned that using Ebola funding to fight Zika is a dangerous and shortsighted diversion of resources.

It should be remembered that Congress initially dragged its feet in approving the Ebola funding in 2014. As Michael Gerson reminds us, during that episode, the main contribution of the conservative movement, to which congressional Republicans pay such heed, was to retail conspiracy theories designed to panic the public and question the motives of the administrators charged with combatting the disease.

One cannot even begin to exhaust the examples of Congress’s refusal to do its job in the public interest. Senate Republicans’ current unwillingness to discharge their constitutional duty to consider U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court is just one of the more obvious instances. This kind of capricious and incompetent governance by the legislative branch cannot go on in a country that is a military and economic superpower.

I used to revere Congress as a bulwark of our constitutional system. But after nearly three decades as a congressional staff member, most of it on the budget committee, I left in despair: the final straw was when a band of Tea Party zealots became determined to drive the country into a sovereign credit default — a pointless act of recklessness.

Which brings us back to the alleged military underfunding that congressional Republicans decry. In order to avert a credit default in 2011, President Obama agreed to a deal requiring across-the-board government cuts (“sequestration”), including military programs.

Congressional Republicans instigated sequestration with their Kamikaze tactics on the debt limit, but now they insist it was all somehow Obama’s policy. That’s par for the course: for congressional Republicans, like toddlers, it’s never, ever their fault.

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