There is wide political agreement that we need to do more to support our veterans and their families. A recent spectacular demonstration was the 326-90 vote in the House and 95-3 vote in the Senate to repeal the military pension cuts to veterans and active service members that were in the Ryan-Murray budget deal. A key question in the current federal budget environment is how we are going to pay for increased veterans' benefits, given broad Republican resistance to raising revenue or increasing the deficit.
An obvious answer is this: cut unnecessary Pentagon spending and split the savings between helping veterans and reducing government debt. This should appeal to Democrats and Republicans who want to help veterans and to Democrats and Republicans who are willing to cut unnecessary Pentagon spending to reduce government debt. It should also appeal to organizations representing veterans.
Some people are under the impression that cutting unnecessary Pentagon spending is a non-starter with all Republicans, or almost all of them. But in the recent past, there has been a substantial group of Republicans in the House who were willing to vote to cut the Pentagon budget.
For example, in July 2012, Representative Mick Mulvaney [R-SC] joined with then Representative Barney Frank [D-MA] in offering an amendment to cut the FY 2013 Pentagon budget by $1.1 billion, thereby freezing Pentagon spending in nominal terms at its 2012 level. This was still above the budget caps of the Budget Control Act, but at least it was moving Pentagon spending in the right direction - down. The amendment passed 247-167, with 89 Republicans voting yes and 146 Republicans voting no; 158 Democrats voted yes while 21 Democrats voted no.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would improve veterans' health care, expand educational opportunities, help the Veterans Affairs Department address its disability claims backlog, and help veterans find jobs. Its cost would be paid through savings at the VA and taking money from the war budget, otherwise known as the Overseas and Contingency Operations [OCO] account. Many veterans groups have backed the Sanders bill, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Some Republicans like Lindsey Graham have criticized the Sanders bill, claiming that OCO is not a "real" offset because we're withdrawing from Afghanistan anyway. But this conveniently omits the fact that Congress put $8.5 billion in the war budget this year that the President didn't even ask for. That means that there is $8.5 billion in the OCO budget that's free for the taking without touching the war in Afghanistan, even if we don't withdraw our troops from Afghanistan faster and more completely than the Pentagon brass want (which, of course, we absolutely should do, saving even more money, a billion dollars a month for every 12,000 troops withdrawn.)
The good news is that Lindsey Graham, who doesn't want to do anything to cut the Pentagon budget, doesn't speak for all Republicans. Remember, in July 2012, 89 House Republicans voted yes on cutting the Pentagon budget.
Let's make a deal with these Republicans to cut $8.5 billion from the OCO budget, use half for the provisions of Sanders' veterans benefits bill and half for deficit reduction, and let's try to get veterans groups on board.
That wouldn't pay for the whole Sanders bill. But if we could pass that, it would be a very significant beginning, and it would set an important precedent. The next time the left-right-veterans coalition proposed something, people in Washington would say, "Here comes that left-right-veterans freight train. We'd better get the hell out of their way."
And there are many, many opportunities for savings in the Pentagon budget that could be tapped, if only there were a powerful political constituency - like veterans - to help pull the train. Here are two examples.
The Navy recently proposed to save money by retiring an aircraft carrier. This would save $3-$4 billion in just the next fiscal year. But the White House is apparently unsure it's willing to take political flak for cutting an ostentatious symbol of American military power, even if the practical consequences of the cut are minimal. Suppose the White House puts the 11th aircraft carrier in the budget. Let's say to the veterans groups: you give us cover on cutting the 11th aircraft carrier, you can have half the savings for the Sanders veterans bill, and the other half will go to reducing government debt.
The Navy reportedly doesn't want to be forced to buy the expensive and problem-plagued F-35C, the Navy version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There are expected to be two of these planes in next year's budget, at a cost of $299.5 million each. The Navy could buy two Super Hornets instead at a cost of $65 million each. If we amended the budget to buy two Super Hornets instead, that would save $469 million. We could give some of the savings to the Navy, use some of the savings for deficit reduction, and use the rest for the Sanders bill.
Each of these individual efforts might not succeed. But there are many such opportunities in the Pentagon budget. If just one of them succeeded, it would set a great precedent for all the others. The military pension fight showed that veterans' groups can be a freight train. Let's all do our bit to help this train reach its destination. You can urge Congress to support the Sanders bill here.