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Too deferential to Defense

Editorial

Congress has no chance of closing the budget gap unless lawmakers go to where the big money is: defense, entitlements and tax breaks.

February 17, 2011

House Republicans are using a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30 as a vehicle to roll back spending on many programs favored by Democrats. But it's easy for lawmakers to cut spending on someone else's priorities. The real test of fiscal discipline is the scrutiny they give their own.

For Republicans, that means the Defense Department — by far the largest federal program funded through annual appropriations. So it's not all that surprising that when Republican leaders of the House Appropriations Committee offered a continuing resolution (HR 1) for the rest of fiscal 2011, they made only minor trims to defense while taking a meat ax to social and environmental programs, including cuts of $1 billion each in aid to needy families and their preschool children.

As severe as the cuts would be for some programs, the total spending reductions proposed in the resolution — about $61 billion — would not be nearly enough to close the roughly $1.5-trillion deficit projected for the current fiscal year. That's true in part because the resolution has no impact on Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs that account for more than half of federal spending. But it doesn't help matters when the bill gives a virtual pass to the Defense Department, which takes up almost 60% of the funding in HR 1.

We don't believe the continuing resolution is the right place to be making deep cuts in federal spending, but we do think Congress has to start the process of closing the budget gap this year. And it has no chance of succeeding unless lawmakers go to where the big money is: defense, entitlements and tax breaks.

It's not clear how well members of Congress understand this basic reality. They rejected five of the six amendments offered to reduce defense spending, including one that would have clipped a mere $18.75 million from funding for advisory boards. That reduction was even supported by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The one they approved, however, was significant: It eliminated $450 million for the development of an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. What makes the vote especially meaningful is that the engine project was backed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio); about 1,000 jobs near his district rely on its funding. The project was the epitome of congressional pork-barrel spending because it required the Defense Department to continue a program it didn't support. The fact that House members can cancel a project despite the backing of a top member is a hopeful sign for the work to come. But they'll have to do far more to rein in defense spending if they hope to bring the budget into balance.

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