WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fifty-seven of the 535 members of the Senate and House of Representatives urged a commission looking for ways to balance the federal budget to recommend substantial cuts in Defense Department spending.
The group, made up mainly of Democrats, said in a letter on Wednesday to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that cutting the $712 billion military budget “must be part of any viable proposal” for deficit reduction.
The letter, which did not cite a specific target, instead called into question the rationale for the extensive military commitment overseas. Five of the signers were from the 100-member Senate.
“Years after the Soviet threat has disappeared, we continue to provide European and Asian nations with military protection through our nuclear umbrella and the troops stationed in our overseas military bases. Given the relative wealth of these countries, we should examine the extent of this burden that we continue to shoulder on our own dime,” the group said.
The Defense Department now accounts for almost 56 percent of all discretionary federal spending, and nearly 65 percent of the increase in annual discretionary spending levels since 2001, said the lawmakers, spearheaded by Representatives Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Ron Paul, a Texas Republican.
Frank, who heads the House Financial Services Committee, said in a conference call with reporters that he approved of the effort by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to squeeze $101 billion from Pentagon overhead from 2012 to 2016. But he said deeper reductions were required, including cuts to weapons programs he did not specify.
“We’re arguing for doing less, not simply doing it more efficiently,” Frank said. He said the deficit commission, which is to make its recommendations in December, offered a unique forum to confront the choices needed to avoid reducing social security, Medicare and other domestic programs.
Frank voiced satisfaction that Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, was among the letter’s signers.
The budget deficit for fiscal 2010, ended September 30, was estimated at slightly less than $1.3 trillion by the Congressional Budget Office — an overhang that is an issue for some voters headed into the November 2 midterm elections. Republicans are expected to pick up seats in Congress, including perhaps gain control of the House.
Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year called for stepped-up spending on the military, citing a range of perceived threats to national security, including China’s rising military clout, Iran’s suspected nuclear arms program and North Korea.
Editing by Steve Orlofsky