When teaching about Congress in class this week, I always discuss how the policy we get is not necessarily in the national interest, but instead in the interest of a majority of Congress members. And those are definitely not the same thing. I like to point out how many military projects are built in a ton of different districts (e.g., jet engines in one place, wings in another, cockpit instruments in half a dozen others, wheels in another, ball bearings for wheels in another– you get the picture) and thus even if the military wants to cut something, Congress insists they keep it.
Conveniently for me to share with my class, the very next day on the way home from work, I heard this NPR story about what the Pentagon wants to do with the budget versus what Congress wants to do with the budget. Kudos to Defense Secretary for pointing out that by keeping aging weapons systems we don’t actually need, this will actually make us less safe. From the story:
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I don’t think we have to choose between our national security and our fiscal security. But at the same time, this is not an easy task.
ABRAMSON: Don’t have to choose, but in fact Panetta says Congress is forcing him to pick one or the other, national security or a lower deficit. Panetta has put together a budget that envisions a smaller military with fewer troops, planes and ships. He’s cut what he considers aging equipment, but members of Congress have voted to reverse a lot of those cuts because in many cases they represent programs beloved in their home districts. [emphasis mine]
PANETTA: My concern is that if these decisions are totally reversed, then I’ve got to find money somewhere in order to maintain this old stuff, which has me literally in a situation where I’ve got to hollow out the force in order to do that.
ABRAMSON: In other words, Panetta says he might have to pay for a bigger force demanded by Congress by cutting back on training and equipment.
Of course, members of Congress are there not to look after the national interest, but rather their constituents. Still, it would be nice if they would consider the former a little bit more. Though, I’m fairly sure they have truly convinced themselves that’s what’s good for their district is good for America. The human brain is pretty damn flexible that way. Thus, I don’t really see a solution for this, it’s just a depressing fact of life about how Congress actually works.