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Incoming: Scrutiny of the Pentagon Budget

I'm surprised that initial reaction to the Bowles-Simpson proposal seems to be taking for granted one of the Commission's major conceptual surprises: treating Pentagon spending, which comprises 51 percent of discretionary spending, on par with non-defense discretionary spending. A strange bedfellows coalition of Barney Frank, Ron Paul, Tom Coburn and others (full disclosure, including me in a minor supporting role) has advocated this for six months. Senator Johnny Isakson and Senators-elect Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk all said during the campaign that the Pentagon's budget should be included in deficit scrutiny. So there is reason to believe that at least some of these proposals can be made to stick.

The Commission's proposals are primariliy "efficiency cuts." Mainly they target pay, benefits and processes. To a (much) lesser extent, they target roles, missions and hardware. Rather to my surprise, they went straight for the political third rail of military pay and benefits during wartime, although they exempt combat pay. They also attempt to take Secretary Gates' initiative -- to find cost savings within the Defense Department and put them back into hardware -- and repurpose the savings for deficit reduction.

Gates, veterans' groups, and the defense industry will all have negative reactions to this. So will members of Congress. Others, right and left, will point out that a reassessment of US strategy and military aims would offer more possibilities for savings.  Do we really need amphibious landing craft when the military hasn't conducted a hostile amphibious landing since Korea? But if the parity presentation makes it through to the final report, Simpson and Bowles will have accomplished something that groups on the left and right have been trying, unsuccessfully, since Eisenhower issued his famous warning about the military-industrial complex.

Observers can rightly grouse about the need to take a more serious look at how much we rely on our military, given how much that reliance costs. They can also question the wisdom of balancing the budget on the pay and benefits of troops and veterans in wartime. But observers need to seize with both hands the idea that all 100 percent of discretionary spending is under the knife.

Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network.