Election might not change the Pentagon’s course as much as you think

David Goldman/AP

The presidential election will have little impact on the overall trajectory of defense policy and budgets, panelists said during a Brookings Institution event on Monday.

During a discussion hosted by the think tank’s 21st Century Defense Initiative, scholars said the Defense Department would face the same fundamental issues of domestic budget restrictions and shifting world politics, whether in a second term under President Obama or a new administration under Republican candidate Mitt Romney. 

“The differences between the two gentlemen are important, but they’re not earth-shattering,” Brookings senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon said. “You can imagine this as Obama 2009 versus Obama 2012 in terms of the range of debate over the proper future of our budget.” The panelists noted that many of the constraints facing the country, including rising health care costs, changing mission priorities, drawdowns from the war in Afghanistan and a harsh economic climate, would inevitably affect the shape and scope of a future Pentagon budget. While elements of specific policies would certainly differ, the panelists said that both Obama and Romney would likely continue to focus on the Asia Pacific, and maintain steady pressure on hot spots in the Middle East.

The future of the defense budget was murkier, but O’Hanlon said it would remain healthy in comparison with that of past presidents even after factoring in inflation, the potential for sequestration and other cuts.

“The broad point is that Obama’s cuts will still leave us with a very robust defense budget in excess of anything we had with Bill Clinton and in excess of anything we had in the first term of President George W. Bush,” O’Hanlon said.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, noted that rising personnel costs were slated to put pressure on Pentagon spending. Harrison said these costs were already one-third of the budget, and would grow significantly without any reform.

“Personnel costs continue to eat up more and more of the budget, and that reduces your purchasing power for things like modernization programs,” he said. According to Harrison, rising personnel costs would necessitate cuts in other areas of military spending, which in turn would decrease the capabilities and effectiveness of the force -- a serious problem Obama or Romney would face.

Harrison noted that civilian workers at the Pentagon are more vulnerable to budget cuts because they have less bargaining and lobbying power than military personnel. He added that sequestration posed a higher threat for civilian jobs than it did for military ones, which in turn could affect Defense operations.  

“If you cut too far, you risk either not getting the job done, not providing sufficient oversight, or you just have to use military personnel who are more expensive per person to do the same job,” Harrison said.

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