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The GOP's defense budget mystery

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Tall, affable Buck McKeon sits, gavel in hand, at the turbulent intersection of two conflicting Republican tendencies. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee embodies the party's support for a "strong" defense, which is sometimes measured simply by the size of the Pentagon's budget. But the 35 Republicans on his 62-member committee include 13 first-term legislators, some of whom embody the Tea Party's zeal for cutting government spending.

The United States spends almost as much on military capabilities as the rest of the world spends, and at least six times more than the second-biggest spending nation (China). But McKeon says, "A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline." And: "I've been around a long time, and I've seen us cut defense investments over the years after wars. . . . But I've never before seen us make cuts during a war. Cuts to defense investment in the midst of two wars is unacceptable." Asked, however, about the immediate future of the defense budget, he says, after a long pause: "It's probably going to be smaller."

One war, in Iraq, will, the president promises, end this year with the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The other, in Afghanistan, probably will not become more expensive because the number of troops there probably will not be increased. Furthermore, since fiscal 2001, what is called the military's "baseline budget" has increased 80 percent, to $534 billion. That number is, however, much less than what is actually being spent, and not just because it doesn't include much of the spending on the two wars.

The Obama administration wants to cut $78 billion over five years, in addition to cuts already planned. McKeon and others are resisting, starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to halt work on a $14.4 billion Marine program for a new Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a 39-ton landing craft and tank that can deliver 17 Marines in an amphibious assault.

Although the Marines' last opposed landing was in 1950 in Korea at Inchon, some legislators think ending the EFV program strikes at the Marines' core mission. McKeon wonders: What if the next "denied space" the Marines must enter is along the Strait of Hormuz? The Inchon landing craft, which traveled only 6 mph, had to leave from ships close to shore - too close for today's shores perhaps bristling with anti-ship missiles. The EFV travels 20 knots from 25 miles offshore - and sprints 45 mph on shore.

The average age of America's amphibious assault vehicles is 38 years, more than that of strategic bombers (34 years) but less than that of tanker aircraft (46 years). Gates favors finding a more affordable ship-to-shore vehicle. Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the Marines' deputy commandant for combat development and integration, says the EFV program "was unaffordable." Was. Past tense.

Such statements are in the subjunctive mood until Congress speaks. But some congressional voices are impatiently insisting that no one can say how much is being spent on defense, or how.

After listening to recent Defense Department testimony, Randy Forbes, a six-term Virginia Republican on McKeon's committee, was exasperated. He said that for four years the department, whose $708 billion budget - his number - is the size of the world's 22nd-largest economy (the Netherlands), has not complied with the law requiring auditable financial statements. And he charged that "none" of the budget is "even in a position to be audited." He said that the department is not "qualified" to talk about efficiencies if it "does not know where our defense dollars are going" and that it cannot comply with the law if it "does not even have mechanisms in place to perform the audits."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), writing to Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said that "the Pentagon is one of the few agencies in the federal government that cannot produce auditable financial statements in accordance with the law." So "I will continue to push for a budget freeze of all base budget non-military personnel accounts at the Defense Department until it complies with the law regarding auditable financial statements."

To govern is to choose, always on the basis of imperfect information. If, however, the strong language of Forbes and Coburn is apposite, Congress cannot make adequately informed choices about the uniquely important matters that come to McKeon's committee. This fact will fuel the fires of controversy that will rage within the ranks of Republicans as they come to terms with the fact that current defense spending cannot be defended until it is understood.

georgewill@washpost.com

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