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Lawmakers call for smarter defense spending, but disagree on size of budget

Apr. 29, 2014 - 10:00AM   |  
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In the midst of complex and wide-ranging threats from around the world, Congress must work more closely with the Pentagon to get more out of the defense dollars it spends, House Armed Services Committee members said Monday.

But there is disagreement on how many dollars the Pentagon should get. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., argued for setting limits on spending, while Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the defense budget should be increased.

“I don’t think it’s correct to assume that a bigger budget is a better budget,” Larsen said at a defense policy briefing at the Brookings Institution. “There’s been a lot of waste, fraud and abuse in the Defense Department during the 2000s when it seemed there was no limit in what the Defense Department got.”

Thornberry, although agreeing that money already budgeted to the military could be better spent, said the number of threats facing the U.S. is greater “than perhaps ever before” so Congress needs to increase the defense budget to maintain readiness against potential threats from Russia, China and others.

“There is a value in and of itself to numbers of ships and airplanes, and ammunition” that the U.S. maintains, Thornberry said. “My point is, the world’s watching. The world has some doubts about us.”

Increasing the defense budget, he added, will send a clearer message that “we are going to do whatever it takes to defend ourselves, our interests and our allies.”

Thornberry supported the fiscal 2015 budget plan put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, which called for increasing defense spending by $43 billion in 2016 and by about $483 billion over 10 years. Neither Larsen nor any House Democrats supported the Ryan budget.

“I don’t think Vladimir Putin has a concern about what our defense budget is going to look like two or three or four years from now. I think he is more concerned about how we are going to use it today,” Larsen said. “In order to make the investments that we need for the future it might make sense for us to not make investments in things that we have in the past.”

Both lawmakers agreed that it’s important to emphasize the bipartisan support of standing by U.S. treaty agreements. President Obama underscored the same point last week, vowing that the U.S. security treaty with Japan extends to the Senkaku islands, which China also claims.

Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense strategy think tank, said that as far as the defense budget goes, what matters is how you spend money, not how much money you have.

“The real question for the U.S. right now is: ‘Are we spending it wisely? Are we spending it on the right things?’ And I think we’ve got a long way to go right there,” Harrison said.

He said spending could be cut by reforming military compensation, closing some bases and reducing the size of DoD’s civilian workforce.

“Until we tackle a lot of those big issues — things that are politically difficult for Congress to do — we are not going to be addressing the real problem,” he said.

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