When the government departments line up to claim their Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in the battle of the budget cuts, the Pentagon will be there.
Having received only a ritual scratch inflicted by a wincing commander in chief, it may look a little funny next to agencies that have lost arms and legs, but where the Department of Defense is concerned, Ronald Reagan is ready to stretch a point.
Actually, he only did it to make a point, which is that all government is making equal sacrifice for the realization of the president's economic goals. Making a $13 billion reduction in the rate of rise of the Pentagon spending means that next year the warriors will have $2 billion less to defend us from the Soviets. Out of a budget of $1.6 trillion over the next five years, it may not seem like much -- but that's only to people who cannot see the threat from a nation that has added to its perfidy, according to our secretary of state, by using poisonous chemicals in Asia.
As it turns out, the $13 billion was a sum proposed last spring by a Democrat, Chairman Jim Jones of the House Budget Committee, and it was angrily rejected then by conservatives of both arties.
By certain standards, especially his own, Reagan was extremely brave.
He does not believe for a minute that the Pentagon wastes money. Only sloppy, civilian agencies like Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development throw the stuff around. Cost overruns and lemon-weapons are honest mistakes, as compared with the deliberate fraud perpetrated in behalf of "welfare queens" and other such predators.
the extraordinary thing about the Pentagon in this Congress is that even waste and fraud have been regarded as sacred cows. Take the fate of Rep. Patricia Schroeder's modest attempt to take $8 billion in documented waste (documented by the General Accounting Office) out of the Pentagon budget -- with the secretary given discretion in the choice. Only three Republicans out of 60 who had written a letter in May, suggesting that $25 billion could be painlessly removed, dared to vote with her.
She was denounced during the debate of July 16 by outraged defenders of the Defense Department for "a cheap, backdoor attempt to reduce the authorization figure" and for "really going after the national defense of this country." She lost by a margin of almost two to one.
And how will Reagan, with his penknife on the Pentagon's sleeve, be received by such champions? They will groan a bit, but only for the record. The $13 billion frees their hands for the real action -- bigger slashes on the social programs:
They were terribly concerned that radicals like David A. Stockman and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, who have an unfortunate tendency to look at figures instead of red hobgoblins, might persuade Reagan to do something really wild, like a $20 billion to $30 billion cut. Now that reason has prevailed, they are relieved.
During the suspenseful White House meetings where the fate of the big spenders was being decided, two friends of the Pentagon, Reps. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.) and Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), held a press conference under the auspices of the Coalition for Peace through Strength -- a 270-member hawk club on Capitol Hill. Although Dickinson had been shown special consideration by Reagan, and had been flown to the ranch for reassurances about some supposedly endangered weapons systems, he was worried that the president might be listening to the wrong voices.
Dickinson can live with the cuts.
The Democrats are in the process of deciding that they can, too. They have informally reached the conclusion that there is nothing in it for them to propose a leaner, alternate defense budget. They do not need to carry the added burden of being called "soft on defense" into the 1981 campaign. They are included to let the Republicans fight it out among themselves. There are people in the GOP who are mindful of their budget-balancing rhetoric, and somewhat self-conscious about taking milk from babies and pittances from Social Security recipients in order to provide for "the poor relative" -- Reagan's term for the Pentagon.
But as Rep. Schroeder, observes from her experience, "Republicans talk defense cuts, but they never vote them."
Politically and cosmetically, the president is in fine shape. He will "win" in Congress. He has tiptoed into the temple of defense spending. Unfortunately for him, Wall Street is the only audience that counts. If the Street says that the $13 billion nick won't do anything to bring down the high interest rates, he may have to go back and take a serious whack at the wallets of the admirals and the generals. It would go against the grain for him.
For now, though, he and his victims are happy.
They are rejoicing in their token martyrdom. they can say with Mercutio about their wound:
"Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door;
but 'tis enough, 'twill serve."