The Magazine

Revolt of the Congress

Robert Gates's defense cuts meet resistance on Capitol Hill.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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When the Republican Congress wrote the law mandating the 1997 QDR, it specified that an outside National Defense Panel should evaluate the Pentagon's work; congressional defense leaders did not trust the Clinton administration to do an honest review. The House Armed Services Committee has revived the panel for exactly the same reason and has done so with the explicit backing of both the committee chairman, Representative Ike Skelton, and the ranking Republican, Howard "Buck" McKeon. When the House and Senate versions of the defense bill go to conference to be reconciled, there is a good chance that Senate Republicans and key Democrats like Lieberman will accede to the House's call for an oversight body.

And so the National Defense Panel will be a natural rallying point for the disparate forces on Capitol Hill and throughout Washington seeking to derail the Gates train. It will provide a vehicle not just for reviewing the termination of the F-22 and other major procurements but also for advocating a more meaningful commitment to irregular warfare by increasing the numbers of U.S. land forces. It would offset the twin Gates strategies of divide-and-conquer--playing off one procurement program against another--and pitting concerns about irregular and high-tech conventional warfare against each other in a zero-sum budget game.

As of today, the QDR is an exercise in putting strategic lipstick on a budget-cutting pig; it is part and parcel of the administration's larger goal of fundamentally reordering federal priorities. At the end of eight years, if the White House has its way, the U.S. budget will ape those of most European countries: huge domestic entitlements, with a defense burden shrinking to or below 3 percent of GDP.

The proposed National Defense Panel could be a small but significant sign that some Democrats and Republicans are having second thoughts about this direction and are willing to challenge Gates's aura of infallibility. If the Senate adds the National Defense Panel provision to the final defense bill, the stage will be set, if not for a battle royal, then at least for an honest debate about the country's future defenses.

Tom Donnelly is resident fellow in defense studies and Gary Schmitt is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.