Congress should act quickly in Pentagon’s budget crisis 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to retire this year, so he is in a position to speak freely, and speak freely he did the other day. The Pentagon has a crisis, and the crisis is that because of 11 months of congressional inaction, the military doesn’t have a budget.

Nearly a year ago, the Obama administration asked Congress for $549 billion to run the Pentagon in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But because of delays, partisan politicking and the inefficiency of the system, Congress never got around to approving that money.

Instead, it enacted a series of temporary bills — the Pentagon is currently operating under the fourth such measure — allowing the military to spend at fiscal 2010 levels. But the budget for that year was $526 billion, $23 billion less than was needed for this year.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq won’t be affected because they are funded separately, but everything else in the military will be. Unless Congress acts, Gates will be forced to order cuts in training, operations and maintenance.

“Frankly,” says Gates, “that’s how you hollow out a military, even in wartime. This has to do with the security of the country.”

While Congress seems unable to bestir itself to enact the current year’s military budget, lawmakers can’t seem to wait to get at the fiscal 2012 defense budget. Gates has promised that the military would do its part for the new austerity by cutting $78 billion in planned spending over the next five years.

Among the cuts: killing the Marines’ $15 billion expeditionary fighting vehicle; delaying production of the F-35 fighter; and trimming the manpower of the Army and the Marines by 42,000 or more.

Deficit hawks in Congress say it’s not enough; traditional supporters of the military, like Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, say it’s too much.

Lawmakers will have plenty of time to argue that out this spring and summer. Right now, says Gates, “I have a crisis on my doorstep. And I want them to deal with the crisis on my doorstep.”

Congress should oblige the man — and quickly.

Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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