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Reagan's Buildup was the Model for Secure Defense

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They called him “Cap the Knife.”

After stints as director of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Casper Weinberger had a rep.  He was the guy in government determined to rein it in.

So when President Reagan picked him to head the Pentagon, many expected Weinberger to continue his cost-cutting ways.  But Cap and the Gipper both knew that defense required a different mind-set: The size and scope of the military should be determined by what is needed to protect the nation, not by how much money is available after budgeting for other federal functions has been completed.

The Constitution enumerates more specific powers and responsibilities to “provide for the common defense” than for any other obligation of national government.

Reagan and Weinberger inherited an American military that had gone “hollow” after four years of neglect under the Carter administration.  Meanwhile, the Soviets had gone on the offensive seemingly everywhere. To keep America safe in a dangerous world, Cap the Knife oversaw double-digit increases in defense spending.

As the Reagan administration rebuilt America’s hoary arsenal, it bent every effort to be a good steward of tax dollars. The media hyped stories of high-priced hammers and toilet seats, but the Reagan administration actually introduced more reforms and oversight in government contracting that any president since Eisenhower. It was under Reagan, for example, that the Federal Acquisition Regulations were first established.   

The Reagan model should guide the new Congress in its handling of the Pentagon budget.  

The last Congress failed utterly to meet its responsibilities, passing no budget, not even a defense appropriations bill. Instead, government has been operating under a continuing resolution set to expire March 4.

There is talk of extending the CR through the end of the fiscal year.  That would leave the Pentagon more than $18 billion short of what it needs this year to fund operations, repair equipment, train our forces, and maintain readiness. Simply extending the CR “will be a disaster for us,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “We will have real problems.”

These are not problems that could be easily fixed in next year’s budget. Shortfalls in readiness pile up, putting even more pressure on future budgets.
 You don’t gain efficiencies by just cutting defense funds.  Less defense spending just gets you less defense.  But we could be getting a bigger bang for our defense buck.  That, however, would require Congress and the administration to follow the Reagan formula of: 1) enacting reforms that make the Pentagon operate more efficiently; and 2) basing defense requirements on strategic needs.

Congress now faces a Reagan moment.  It has an opportunity to tame big government without undermining national defense.  And it has two ways to make the most of this opportunity.  It could pass an adequate defense appropriations bill for FY 2011 and leave the rest of the budget under the CR.  Alternatively, Congress could leave everything under a CR, but stipulate an $18 billion increase in defense funding, and the reductions in other areas needed to offset that increase.

Heritage Foundation budget expert Brian Riedl has demonstrated that it’s quite possible to cut at least $170 billion from the budget over the next two years without taking a penny from defense and without undercutting the government’s ability to meet any of its constitutional responsibilities.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday.  Congress could find no better way to honor his legacy than to do its budgetary duty in a way that ensures peace through strength without wasting the taxpayers’ money.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner

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