The Senate huffed and puffed its way through 20 hours of debate before passing the mammoth defense procurement bill in the wee hours last Saturday morning. Despite, or perhaps because of, this frenzied activity, the Senate left hard decisions on military priorities for another day.
The $178 billion authorized for developing and buying weapons trims $5.6 billion from the administration's initial budget request. That's not enough to meet even the modest defense savings for next year that were agreed upon by the administration and Senate Republicans a week earlier.
The Senate accepted almost all of the decisions made earlier by its Armed Services Committee--decisions that may make it still harder to control defense spending in future years. Despite the spending cuts, the committee was able to find room to make down payments on all the new hardware the Pentagon requested, including two new carrier task forces and resumption of chemical weapons production. It even turned away from most of the savings that Defense Secretary Weinberger had put on the table earlier in the week. These weapon starts put a heavy mortgage on the defense budget in future years.
The only tough choice the Senate actually made had heavy political overtones. It was the decision to buy used Boeing 747 airplanes to bolster airlift capability instead of ordering more new Lockheed C5 cargo planes. Boeing is located in Washington State, the home of Sens. Henry M. Jackson and Slade Gorton, who led the debate in defense of the 747.
Lockheed, of course, is not exactly without regional defenses. It builds its C5s in Georgia, and it had Sens. Sam Nunn and Mack Mattingly to speak for its merits. But the balance was tilted in favor of the Washington State contingent by the bankruptcy of Braniff International--some of the 747s would be bought from failing airlines--and by an alliance with senators from Missouri and Kansas who hope that if the C5 falls from favor, their favorite contractor, McDonnell Douglas, will get to build the new C17 transport.
By moving the defense bill ahead of the budget process, Armed Services Committee advocates of a no-cut approach to defense spending scored an early victory. That success, however, may mean that decisions on defense priorities will be shifted in the budget reconciliation process to the Appropriations Committee--where final adjustments to meet budget controls will be made later in the year. Shaving money from next year's spending in the rush of budget reconciliation is definitely not the best way to ensure that the country's armed forces are ready for action now or in the future.