The incoming head of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he will use his new perch to push for increases in defense spending -- beyond what the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are calling for.
McKeon, speaking at a policy conference organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank, said that while he supports Gates' drive to find $100 billion in efficiencies within the defense budget, he is worried that, once the defense secretary identifies possible cuts, deficit-minded officials and lawmakers will seek to take that money away from the Pentagon.
"I am extremely concerned that no matter what the intentions of Secretary Gates may be, the administration and some in Congress will not allow the secretary to keep the savings identified in his efficiencies initiative," McKeon said. "Sustaining growth for the Department of Defense requires leadership from the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. Once savings from this efficiencies initiative are identified, what's to stop them from taking this money, too?"
In fact, the two co-chairs of the president's Debt Commission proposed last week to divert this money away from the defense budget. They said the $100 billion Gates is looking to save should be applied directly to the deficit, and also proposed other drastic cuts in defense programs and entitlements as part of the overall effort to solve the nation's fiscal problems.
As far as Gates is concerned, his cost-saving measures are not meant to enable overall cuts in the defense budget. He is seeking to protect 1 percent real growth in the budget, which has more than doubled -- from just over $300 billion in 2001 to almost $700 billion for fiscal 2010 -- when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taken into account.
But McKeon said that even 1 percent real growth going forward is not good enough.
"One percent real growth in the defense budget over the next five years is a net cut for investment and procurement accounts. A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline. It will undermine our ability to project power, strengthen our adversaries and weaken our alliances," McKeon said.
He pointed to the report of an independent panel created by Congress to respond to Gates' Quadrennial Defense Review led by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Defense Secretary William Perry to support his argument. That panel recommended significant new investments in naval power and ever increasing defense budgets in the future.
"Let me put this in the simplest terms possible: cutting defense spending amidst two wars is a red line for me and should be a red line for all Americans," McKeon said.
In a roundtable discussion with reporters following his remarks, McKeon said he did not expect the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, which is now before the Senate, to be passed this year.
"For the first time in 40 years, we may not have a defense authorization bill passed," he said. "We need to get it done before the appropriations bill gets done so we can maintain relevance."
He also maintained his opposition to including a measure in the defense bill that would repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military, which is currently supported by the Democratic leadership.
"Whether it be the hate crimes legislation, immigration, or don't ask don't tell, the defense bill has been used as a vehicle to divide instead of unite the Congress," McKeon said. "This must end today."