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Pentagon Tries to Lock Obama Into an Outrageously Bloated Budget

The U.S. spends as much on the military in a single year as it did in the $700 billion financial bailout. Yet the Pentagon is now calling for more.

At the end of a long electoral season marked by bipartisan vows to bring "change," America’s massive military budget remains a hulking and seemingly immutable fact of national life. Given the financial crisis and the promise of President Bush’s departure from office, many have hoped that overheated defense spending might give way to the need to addressing domestic problems.

Yet, countering these hopes, the Pentagon has already maneuvered to lock the Obama administration into greater military spending. On Oct. 9, Congressional Quarterly reported that a forthcoming spending estimate from defense officials would call for $450 billion in additional funds over the next five years. The publication Defense News subsequently confirmed with Bradley Berkson, the Pentagon’s director of program analysis and evaluation, that the military would indeed be seeking additional funds -- although Berkson cited the figure of $360 billion over six years.

In either case, these billions would be increases on top of already escalating military budgets. The Pentagon is currently set to receive $515 billion for 2009, and $527 billion for 2010. Each sum is roughly five times what the federal government will spend annually on education, housing assistance and environmental protection combined.

‘Playing Chicken’

The last decade brought a momentous surge in defense appropriations. Even without the additional money called for in the October estimate, proposed military spending for 2010 almost doubles the already astronomical budget from fiscal year 2000, which was approximately $280 billion.

This, however, is not the whole story. Adding to the Pentagon "base budget," an extra $16 billion goes each year to the Department of Energy to maintain nuclear weapons. And Congress funds wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with supplemental authorizations, which came to $180 billion in fiscal year 2008.

The country spends as much on the military in a single year as it did in the recent $700 billion financial bailout. Yet the Pentagon is now calling for more.

Normally, the U.S. president submits a defense request to Congress early in the New Year as part of the regular budget process, and prior deliberations with military officials are not made available to the public. The purpose of leaking the new defense-spending estimate appears to be political. With Bush leaving office, and amid uncertainty about a new administration, the Pentagon presumably wants to set the bar high for military spending.

"The thinking behind [the document] is pretty straightforward," Dov Zakheim, a top budget official at the Pentagon during Bush’s first term, told Congressional Quarterly . "They are setting a baseline for a new administration that then will have to defend cutting it."

"It’s sort of like trying to play chicken with the new administration," says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. "Armed Services puts it out there: ‘This is what we need to meet our mission. Let’s see if you have the guts to say otherwise.’ They won’t get all of it, but it will complicate matters. They may get more than they would have otherwise."

The Pentagon in Times of Crisis

On the heels of Washington’s bailout for the financial sector, news reports have cited predictions from defense observers that military spending would plateau.

Philip Finnegan, a defense industry analyst at the Teal Group, told the Washington Post that the economic downturn "leaves the outlook for defense spending going from being strong to being dim."

In late October, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) went so far as to suggest that a 25 percent cut in defense spending would be appropriate under current circumstances. The mere suggestion of such cuts led Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) to invoke images of a hostile foreign takeover. Talking with the Christian-oriented American Family News Network on Oct. 31, he decried the irresponsibility of such a move, , "You know, if we don’t make the right decisions about the military, nothing else will matter, will it? Because if we don’t have a free country … what do these other programs matter at all?"