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WASHINGTON — U.S. Republicans and Democrats alike claim to support fiscal responsibility, but you wouldn’t know it from the defense budget. The House-Senate Conference Committee has approved $8 billion in budget authority for next year — $8.3 billion more than requested by the Clinton administration, whose own proposal was larded with pork.

The Pentagon and its allies have been arguing that the military is starved for funds. Yet the defense budget, adjusted for inflation, remains at the level of 1980, when there was a Cold War, Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Congress has only repealed the Reagan military build-up.

Personnel retention and service readiness have been suffering, but not because of inadequate spending. The problem is the administration’s promiscuous deployment of U.S. forces for frivolous purposes — to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and more.

There is more than enough money available to maintain service quality. Unfortunately, the funds are being squandered to subsidize businessmen and reelect congressmen.

As William Hartung of the World Policy Institute points out in a new study for the Cato Institute, the federal government spent $7.9 billion in 1996 (the most recent year for which all figures are available) to promote $12 billion worth of global arms sales. Federal research-and-development subsidies underwrite not only Pentagon weapons purchases but also profitable foreign exports. Moreover, a sizable share of the $120 billion in procurement is wasted on arms that even the Pentagon doesn’t want.

Export subsidies are one special-interest Pentagon boondoggle. Through the Foreign Military Financing Program, the Defense Department has given grants and loans to Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Egypt, Estonia, Greece, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and numerous other nations to buy U.S. weapons. There are also loan guarantees from the Defense Export Loan Guarantee Fund; the Foreign Military Sales program has provided loans (many of which have been written off) and grants for the purchase of U.S. weapons.

Between 1990 and 1995, the Pentagon dumped as gifts, or at deep discounts, weapons that originally cost $8.7 billion. The beneficiaries of this largess included Australia, one of Asia’s wealthiest countries (Canberra paid about 10 cents on the dollar for the arms). The Federation of American Scientists complained, “The services appear to be giving away still useful equipment to justify procurement of new weaponry.”

Equally expensive is the pork that permeates weapons procurement. The Pentagon buys about $120 billion in goods and services every year, creating an enormous honey pot for legislators and interest groups.

According to Hartung, Congress added $30 billion to Pentagon requests over the last four years, “mostly for big-ticket weapons systems built in the districts or states of congressional leaders or members of key committees” (primarily self-proclaimed fiscal conservative Republican members, it should be noted).

While overall procurement spending fell between 1986 and 1996, nine states increased the amount they collected in Pentagon contracts. These states — such as South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia — are represented by particularly influential legislators.

In announcing the congressional conference committee’s agreement on $288.8 billion in budget authority for fiscal year 2000, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence explained, “Despite our best efforts . . ., we are only managing the growing risks to our national security, not eliminating them. Absent a long-term, sustained commitment to revitalizing America’s armed forces, we will continue to run the inevitable risks that come from asking our troops to do more with less.”

Instead of spending more, Washington should ask its troops to do less. The U.S. need not defend prosperous and populous allies. It need not try to put Humpty-Dumpty nations back together. Moreover, Congress should spend military dollars more efficiently. All pork wastes taxpayer funds. Pentagon pork also weakens America’s defense. By exercising a little more fiscal responsibility, Congress could end up saving the lives of U.S. servicemen and -women.

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