Frank Pushes Gates to Cut Deeper

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:30 PM EDT

Last week, news leaked that Bob Gates, President Obama's Republican Secretary of Defense, is planning to cut several major weapons programs, including the F-22 and the Zumwalt-class destroyer. At last night's press conference, Obama acknowledged that he had "been working with Secretary Gates on this and will be detailing it more in the weeks to come," but warned that "the politics of changing procurement is tough." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is a longtime crusader against wasteful military spending. Frank, the powerful chair of the House financial services committee, was dealt a setback in his battle against Pentagon waste when Obama increased the military budget. With the news that several of the programs he and others have criticized may be killed, Frank and other Pentagon spending critics have some reason to be hopeful.

But while he was "very encouraged" to hear that Gates plans cuts, Frank tells Mother Jones that making those cuts will be "very hard." The recession and the fact that defense contractors have "gone and spent money in everybody's district" will make members of Congress reluctant to slash procurement dollars, Frank explained. Even his own dark-blue Massachusetts district has jobs that depend on defense spending. "When I came out publicly wanting military spending cuts, shortly thereafter I was visited by someone who works at a company in my district that makes parts that go into one of the weapons systems I was talking about cutting," Frank said. "It was very polite, and there's nothing coercive about it, but it was clear that they wanted to remind me that I have people in my district that do that, and that's true."

Weapons programs have always been tough to cut. When he was Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney tried four times to kill the V-22 Osprey, a kind of combined helicopter-airplane troop transport that had several fatal accidents during testing, killing a combined 30 people. Each time Congress resurrected the project, and the Osprey is now operational—albeit over budget and way behind schedule. (The Osprey, at least, is used in Iraq and—starting this year—Afghanistan. The Air Force's F-22 fighter has not been used in either conflict.)

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While Frank knows the bad economy will make it difficult to cut any defense spending, he thinks that Republicans worried about the employment consequences of lost defense procurement dollars are being hypocrites. "It's somewhat ironic that conservatives who tell us that government spending can't create jobs totally turn that around when it comes to military spending. I call that 'weaponized Keynesianism.'"

Frank thinks Obama and Gates can go further, especially regarding missile defense spending.  "I'm particularly unconvinced that we have to protect Prague from Iran," Frank said, referring to US plans to set up missile defense sites in Eastern Europe.  Frank noted that the Czech Republic's government, which collapsed earlier this week, couldn't even get the votes it needed to allow the United States to install missile defense systems. Frank has fierce enemies in this fight: the missile defense industry is already streaming executives into DC to chat up lawmakers, the Washington Post reported. But Frank is thinking long-term—he's been fighting huge military budgets for decades. Changes in the US military's mission, he noted, will probably bring big savings. One he's looking for is "a diminution of the extent to which America is the guarantor of security for everyone in the world." Maybe we can start with not defending the Czechs against Iran.