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THOMAS: Downsizing defense

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas

As Republicans take their case to the voters in November about the Obama administration's massive overspending and record debt, they should seriously consider what could be a rare bipartisan objective: cutting defense spending.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- a George W. Bush appointee and an Obama holdover -- has announced plans to reduce what he calls the ''cumbersome'' American military hierarchy. Gates also wants to cut spending by more than one-quarter on support contractors and close the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., which, according to the Washington Post, ''employs about 2,800 military and civilian personnel as well as 3,300 contractors, most of them in southeastern Virginia.'' Gates' proposal got the attention of Sen. James Webb, Virginia Democrat, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. Closing a national security facility would cost jobs and Virginia, which recently announced a budget surplus and houses the Pentagon and other military venues, doesn't want to regress.

It is one of Washington's major embarrassments that no matter which party controls Congress, members use defense spending to create jobs and do favors for political contributors in their states and districts. But like the bipartisan Base Realignment and Closure process, which operated through Republican and Democratic administrations and resulted in the closing of 350 outdated military bases, a similar approach to cutting unnecessary defense spending might also produce benefits to taxpayers.

The problem has been that the left too often wants to cut defense for its own anti-war and political agenda and the right thinks all defense spending is good and to cut it is unpatriotic. So how about starting with the most outrageous and unnecessary spending, which should make harder cuts a little easier?

Citizens Against Government Waste (www.cagw.org) offers some useful places to begin. In the 2010 defense budget, ''$3,385,000,000 was added anonymously for four projects. According to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, signed into law on Sept. 14, 2007 by President George W. Bush, members of Congress are required to add their name to each earmark. However, they continue to violate this law by adding anonymous earmarks to fund projects -- often big-ticket items -- at the expense of taxpayers.'' Why can't Congress live under laws it passes to regulate itself?

Another anonymous earmark for $250 million was added, ''For advance procurement of components for the two DDG-51 destroyers, planned in fiscal year 2011. According to a Sept. 29, Associated Press article, the DDG-51 destroyer is ''to be built in Pascagoula, Miss., home to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran,'' Ranking Member on the Appropriations Committee. ''Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), (former senator) Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) and Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) added $8,100,000 for a hybrid drive system for the DDG-51 destroyer.''

Spending may be Washington's last bipartisan activity.

Again anonymously, $2.5 billion was earmarked for ''10 additional C-17 aircraft. In a floor statement posted on his website, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) voiced his opposition to the C-17 funding: 'what we would do in this bill is effectively fund the purchase of new aircraft that we neither need nor can afford with critical sustainment money. That would have a significant impact on our ability to provide the day-to-day operational funding that our servicemen and women and their families deserve.'"

It will take more than spending reductions to make the Pentagon -- and the American economy -- healthy again. Ultimately, the political leadership must develop a policy about the proper role of the United States in the world and what weapons are necessary to fight modern wars against terrorists.

President Barack Obama has said (and so have his predecessors) that he doesn't like the pork in defense bills, but he has to sign what Congress sends him. The least he could do is to shame those members who won't attach their names to spending measures, or who support spending for weapons the Pentagon neither wants, nor needs.

Wasting money on the Department of Defense may strengthen the political careers of politicians, but it weakens our defenses.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.