Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned for years that “our national debt is our biggest national security threat.” If people start doubting that the United States can pay its bills, the country’s influence around the world will wane. Mullen’s statements helped pave the way for trims to the federal budget, including military spending. Before raising the debt ceiling last year, lawmakers set in motion a mechanism that will make automatic cuts to the 2013 budget. But now that those cuts are looming, lawmakers around the country are working hard to roll them back to preserve military jobs in their home areas.
Massachusetts is no exception. Representative Niki Tsongas inserted an amendment that requires congressional approval before the Pentagon can make more changes to the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, which is set to lose several hundred jobs. Representative William Keating has been fighting to save 103 part-time National Guard jobs and 33 full-time jobs at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod.
Both are doing what they were elected to do: stand up for their constituents. However, the hard choices of what to cut from the military budget should be driven by national defense needs, not politics. Both the Hanscom center and the Otis base have compelling reasons to exist, starting with access to a highly specialized and educated work force here in Massachusetts. Both projects deserve to be evaluated on their merits in a transparent process. There are many reasons a cash-strapped military might see fit to trim its active ranks but preserve the National Guard, which costs far less.
The Pentagon should set up an independent commission to ensure that spending decisions in the 2013 budget are based on military need, not politics. Such a commission might well recommend that the Air Operations Group at Otis, one of several around the country that analyzes intelligence data to support troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere, be allowed to continue its work.
Independent commissions have helped lawmakers overcome deadlocks over military cuts in the past. The Base Realignment and Closure Commissions set up in 1988 forced Congress to vote on recommendations as a package, without allowing powerful lawmakers to take their states off the chopping block. So it’s a shame that the House recently voted down Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s request for another base-closing commission. If Congress is going to mandate cuts in military spending, it must establish a sensible, transparent process to guide those tough decisions.