July 22, 2012

July 22, 2012 | Commentary on

A Lesson From Butte

"Get the rock in the box." That was all Washington cared about.

It was 1917, and America was at war. Copper was needed to build the weapons of war. And Washington wanted the ore cars from the mines of Butte, Mont., filled and filled fast.

Focused on the ore, Washington forgot the value of the most important of all defense resources: human capital. The imperative to get the rock in the box -- at any cost -- produced horrible working conditions. Relations between the miners and the copper companies grew strained, then violent. Butte became a second front, its streets patrolled by soldiers under arms, its alleys filled with company spies.

Nearly a century later, most of Washington appears to have forgotten, once again, the value of the most important element of our defense industrial base: American workers. Automatic cuts to defense mandated by last year's Budget Control Act are set to take effect next year. It could be disastrous, yet Congress dithers.

Last week, at a town meeting in Great Falls, Mont., about 100 locals gathered to talk with Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., about how the cuts may affect the local community, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Sure, folks were worried about jobs. But what really puzzled them was how people in Washington could talk about the need to find spending efficiencies, make hard trade-offs, and "put everything on the table," and then approve a bill that takes the largest budget items (entitlements) off the table and mandates a "mindless" first-year, 9 percent across-the-board cut for the Pentagon -- an approach guaranteed to generate all kinds of inefficiencies, such as terminating cost-saving support contracts.

What made even less sense to these folks was how the cuts could go forward when leaders on both sides of the aisle know it will create a national security nightmare. Indeed, the negative effects are already kicking in, undermining readiness and slowing down the pipeline of procuring services and buying new equipment.

"Congress can't keep kicking the can down the road," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared at a Pentagon briefing last month. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., warning the proposed cuts were "exacting a cost on our national security and our economy today ... resolution cannot wait until next month or a lame-duck session or even the next Congress."

If leaders on both sides know this law will undermine our defense industrial base, why wouldn't they take it off the books as quickly as possible? The short answer is: Politics. The White House has chosen to hold the Pentagon hostage in an attempt to force conservatives in the Congress to make a pre-election choice between undermining defense or voting to increase taxes.

Putting national security at risk is inexcusable in the abstract. It is even more deplorable in practice. It puts the workers who contribute to our defense industrial base -- and their families -- on a roller coaster of insecurity.

The people of Great Falls want Washington to stop wasting money and to keep America safe. That means solving the budget impasse now, not later.

Congress must reduce spending, but the cuts shouldn't come at the expense of defense. If lawmakers can't figure out where else to find the entire 10-years-worth of savings called for under the Budget Control Act, they must at least offset the defense cuts for just 2013 with spending cuts elsewhere. Then the new Congress can work with the president next year to solve the rest of the mess.

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

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner