Turnabout in the Senate
A little more than ten years ago, a change in the mood of the Senate was one of the first decisive steps in a change in American political culture. That change saw the country turn away from the postwar policy of containment toward one based on the principle, “no more Vietnams.” The new turn which has been taken by the Senate during the past year may be the single most important piece of evidence yet that America is lifting itself out of its post-Vietnam trauma and moving toward a new post-Afghanistan, post-détente foreign policy.
This latest shift in the Senate’s mood has already affected several areas of national-security policy. SALT II has been withheld and the restraints imposed on U.S. foreign-intelligence agencies have begun to be peeled away. But it has been most clearly expressed in the Senate’s actions on defense spending.
Throughout the 1970’s U.S. defense spending underwent a steady decline. Measured in constant dollars, defense outlays in FY (Fiscal Year) 1979 were 29 percent lower than they had been in FY 1969. This may be said to exaggerate the decline because the 1969 figure includes spending for the Vietnam war. But even if the Vietnam spending is discounted, the decline is still significant. Defense spending during the first five years after the U.S. combat role in Vietnam ended (FY 1974-FY 1978) was on average, 11 percent lower, in constant dollars, than it had been during the last five years before the U.S. became heavily involved (FY 1960-FY 1964).
During the period of decline, a pattern developed in the Senate. The administration would introduce a defense-budget request which was ordinarily slightly less, in constant dollars, than the previous year’s budget. Then the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee would, respectively, report out authorization and appropriations bills that would recommend cuts in the President’s request of a few billion dollars, averaging perhaps just under 5 percent of the amount requested.1 (In the House, similar cuts would be made, but usually the Senate cuts were bigger.) Then, on the floor of the Senate, each bill would run a gauntlet of amendments offered by Senate doves proposing still further cuts.
From the late 60’s on, there were almost always at least a dozen such amendments and some years there were nearly two dozen, exclusive of the numerous efforts to curtail U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, to end the draft, or to cut U.S. aid to its Indochinese allies. The defense amendments sometimes called for an aggregate cut in defense spending by 5 percent or 10 percent or of a specified number of billions of dollars. More often they were directed at particular weapons or weapons systems. Frequent targets were the ABM system, the B-l bomber, the F-14 and F-18 aircraft, the Trident submarine, cruise missiles, MIRV’s and MaRV’s, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
Though in a few instances individual weapons were shelved or delayed, most of these amendments failed. All the across-the-board cuts were rejected. But what was noteworthy was that there were almost never any amendments aimed in the opposite direction; nor did successive administrations ever seek to recoup, on the floor, cuts to their requests which had been made in committee. Moreover, it is very likely that the committees, and even the successive administrations, were affected in their decisions by the knowledge that a team of adversaries would be waiting for their recommendations on the Senate floor, with knives drawn.
Whatever the outcome of any particular bill or amendment, there was no doubt about where the momentum lay in the defense debate. Those offering the defense-cutting amendments had, in the words of an aide to one of them, “a kind of religiosity, moralism about them—a crusading quality.” On the other side those more supportive of the military often sounded defensive. Senator Henry M. Jackson, who was perhaps the most courageous opponent of the anti-military current, nonetheless could be heard to say that he, too, favored small defense cuts, but was anxious “to maintain a prudent defense posture”—not exactly blood-stirring words.
The climax of the defense-cutting era in the Senate came in 1975. That year the Appropriations Committee recommended a cut of more than $7 billion from the President’s request of approximately $98 billion, while the Armed Services Committee recommended a cut of $4.9 billion, or 16 percent, from the authorization for that part of the defense budget which goes for weapons and research. Then, on the Senate floor, some 15 different roll-call votes were held on amendments to cut further from those already sharply pared bills. Some of these amendments succeeded, including one offered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy to dismantle the single ABM site allowed under the SALT agreements, and another offered by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey to forbid the flight-testing of MaRV’s (the next phase in technology magic after MIRV’s) until the Russians had flight-tested them first.
Also in 1975, the Congress adopted legislation requiring an evaluation by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency of any significant new weapons being proposed, and stipulating too that all requests for weapons authorizations include “a complete statement analyzing the impact on arms control and disarmament policy and negotiations.”
In 1975, as well, the Senate, in an exceedingly rare action, defeated the conference report on the defense-authorization bill. The House had cut the President’s request a bit less severely than had the Senate. The conferees had agreed to split the difference and reported back a figure some $800-million higher than had been provided by the Senate bill. By a vote of 48 to 42 the Senate repudiated its conferees, insisting that it would not compromise on its defense cuts.
Something else interesting occurred in the Senate in 1975. At the initiative of Senators Cranston and Kennedy, the Senate agreed to set aside two days, at the beginning of its consideration of the defense-authorization bill, for a general discussion of post-Vietnam foreign policy. Senate doves had often complained that U.S. defense policy seemed divorced from clearly stated foreign-policy goals. The “Great Debate,” as those two days came to be called, was designed as a partial remedy for this.
As it turned out, the “Great Debate” provided a forum for critics of the military to set forth the case for cuts in defense spending. Thus:
Senator Birch Bayh said that all Senators “are anxious to have an adequate defense” but that it was important to “realize the enormity of the destructive force [already possessed by the U.S.] and the degree to which it goes beyond what we really need.”
Senator Patrick Leahy complained that in considering defense bills, “We lose sight of the fact that we already have . . . enough weapons to kill every, man, woman, and child on this planet, and do it 27 times.”
Senator John Glenn spoke of his opposition to the B-l bomber, saying that “we are already so far above anything we need with respect to ICBM’s, and likewise the Russians, that to talk about needing another weapon to deliver nuclear weapons is, to me, wishful thinking of the highest order.”
Senator Gary Hart asked whether the policy of maintaining a “triad” of strategic forces “has gotten to be almost gospel in doctrine” without good reason.
Senator Mark Hatfield excoriated the United States for its “fanatical desire to always be No. 1 in the ability to kill people in war.”
Senator Adlai Stevenson offered the thought that “the weakness of the United States is not caused by insufficient arms but by insufficient wisdom.”
Senator Claiborne Pell shared this story with his colleagues:
What is the threat from the Soviet Union? . . . We do not know for sure. I remember when we had a conversation . . . with Mr. Kosygin in the Soviet Union. He was very concerned as he talked about the need for roads, automobiles, and consumer goods. He was very much concerned about the influence of his generals and his admirals on the course of policy in his country. It occurred to me . . . that hawks and doves are not confined to the United States alone.
Finally, there was Senator John Culver. A month before the “Great Debate,” Culver, a former Marine, had described the $4.9-billion, or 16-percent, cut made by the Armed Services Committee as too small, and insisted that another $5 billion be cut from the committee’s $25-billion recommendation. Deploring that fact that “we have obscene overkill capacity that is totally unconscionable and unjustifiable,” he had argued that “we must cut $10 billion out of the defense budget as a minimum if we are going to improve upon the combat readiness and the true, genuine national-security posture of this nation.” Now, in the “Great Debate,” he warned that “nothing causes more ambiguity in foreign policy than a defense structure that is artificially high, redundant, or unnecessarily provocative.”
The cuts did not go deep enough to satisfy Culver, but when all was said and done, in 1975 defense outlays for FY 1976 were the lowest, in constant dollars, that the U.S. Treasury had made since before the Korean war.
The defense debate in the Senate died down in 1976 and 1977, perhaps because 1976 was a presidential election year and 1977 was the beginning of a new President’s term in office. Then in 1978 came an interesting straw in the wind. The Senate, in considering the resolution setting budget targets for FY 1979, voted down two amendments seeking cuts in defense spending, the smaller cut by a vote of 70 to 21. That such amendments should be offered, and rejected, was commonplace in the Senate. What was new was what happened next. Senator John Tower offered an amendment to increase the defense budget. His amendment lost by a vote of 74 to 21. But in losing, Tower demonstrated that now as many Senators were willing to vote for defense hikes as for defense cuts, with the majority in between. Although the momentum in the defense debate was not yet on the side of the hawks, it was evidently no longer running with the doves.
The real turning point in the Senate came in mid-1979. It was not inspired by a single event, but rather by the Senate’s deliberations over SALT II and the trends of which many Senators became aware in that process. According to a Library of Congress study entitled Congress and Foreign Policy-1979:
Perhaps the primary impact of Congress on foreign policy during 1979 was to force into the open a major debate on the adequacy of U.S. strategic and defense posture. . . . It was Senate consideration of the SALT II treaty, and the raising of doubts as to whether it should be ratified, that brought the strategic issue to the forefront of public discussion. . . .
In the course of the SALT II debate something close to a consensus emerged, not on whether to ratify the treaty, but on the underlying trends. An aide to one of the Senate’s most prominent doves put it this way:
The SALT hearing did something interesting. . . . The discussions very quickly became technical—the heavy missiles, verification, the Backfire bomber. One by one, a lot of the weight went out of those issues as a means of arguing the treaty down, but in the process a lot of Senators and a lot of the people testifying found they were learning from each other about just what was our strategic strength [and] where we were heading. [There was] a general admission on both sides that indeed we were falling behind.
As a result, the traditionally dovish Foreign Relations Committee said, in reporting the SALT treaty favorably, that “additional defense efforts by the United States will be necessary to preserve deterrence and essential equivalence in the 1980’s and beyond. The committee believes that recognition of this need is one of the most important results of the SALT debate.”
One of the first expressions of the change which was occurring came in July 1979 when Senator Jackson offered a series of amendments to the Export Administration Act designed to prevent the transfer to the Soviet Union (or other unfriendly countries) of technologies which can be used for military purposes. Although this purpose sounds unexceptionable, the issue is a complicated and controversial one. The problem does not arise with blatantly military technologies, but rather with civilian industrial technologies adaptable to military uses, such as precision ball-bearings essential to MIRV’s or computers which can guide missiles. Nor are possible military uses of civilian industrial technologies always self-evident. There is a gray area in which the goal of preventing the transfer of militarily useful items conflicts with the goal of encouraging exports, and therefore the issue becomes largely one of the direction in which to err.
In 1974 Jackson had offered an amendment to the defense-authorization bill which would have shifted much of the authority to control exports from the Secretary of Commerce to the Secretary of Defense, thereby giving security considerations priority over commercial ones. Jackson’s amendment was opposed and finally defeated by those who believed, as then Senator Walter Mondale said he did, that “it would return us to some of the more negative days of the cold war.” Five years later, in 1979, Jackson offered amendments to the Export Administration Act designed to achieve the same purpose as his 1974 amendment. This time, although he was opposed by Senator Stevenson, the manager of the bill, he amassed enough support to force a compromise by Stevenson leading to language in the bill which would give the Secretary of Defense a much larger hand in the export-licensing process.
But the Senate’s shift on the issue of technology transfer was only a faint hint of what was to come two months later, when it voted on amendments to the second budget resolution for FY 1980. Spurred by the debate over SALT and by relentless reports of the Soviet military build-up, the White House and the Congress (even before Iran and Afghanistan) had come to agree on the need for greater defense spending by the President. Yet while Carter had joined the other NATO countries in a pledge of 3-percent real growth in defense spending, his proposed FY 1980 budget allowed for much less.
This failure to meet the 3-percent growth target inspired Senator Ernest Hollings, with the support of Senator Sam Nunn, to bring to the floor an amendment to raise the congressional budget guidelines for defense. Hollings’s amendment had two parts. The first raised the ceiling for FY 1980 to allow for a full 3-percent real growth, and the second provided for 5-percent real growth in the defense-budget targets for FY 1981 and FY 1982. The administration decided on a strategy of supporting part one and opposing part two of the Hollings amendment. Part one passed the Senate by a resounding vote of 78 to 19. Part two was opposed on the floor vigorously by the then Budget Committee Chairman, Edmund Muskie, and by Armed Services Committee Chairman John Stennis, and it was also opposed in the lobbies by the administration. Yet it passed by a vote of 55 to 42, thus adding $35 billion to the defense-budget guidelines for the first three years of the new decade.
By an amazing coincidence, this almost exactly matched the total amount the Senate had voted to cut out of the budgets requested by successive administrations throughout the entire previous decade. Needless to say, the $35 billion which the Senate proposed to add to defense spending during the years 1980-82 was not worth the same as the $35 billion it cut during the 1970’s. And as it turned out, the rising rate of inflation, especially for fuel costs, eclipsed even the numbers specified in the Hollings amendment. By the beginning of 1980, when the administration presented its proposal for the defense budget for FY 1981 and beyond, it sought dollar amounts higher than those of the Hollings amendment. The administration’s proposal, however, provided for less real growth. But if a high rate of inflation served to cloud the issue, it could not obscure the fact that passage of the Hollings amendment had signaled a profound shift in the politics of the defense budget in the Senate.
In 1980, after events in Iran and Afghanistan had added their impact to the Senate’s already toughening mood on national defense, Senator Hollings resumed the offensive. The revised request by the administration called for $164.5 billion in budget authority for defense in FY 1981. In the Budget Committee five motions were offered. One, by Senator Donald Riegle, would have provided $1.4 billion less than that. It received only two votes, those of Riegle and Senator Nancy Kassebaum, of the eighteen members voting. Then, Senator Joseph Biden offered a motion embodying the administration’s request; this only succeeded in adding Biden’s vote to Riegle’s and Kassebaum’s.
Finally Hollings and Senator Pete Domenici offered a motion allocating nearly $10 billion more than the administration’s figure, and providing real growth of perhaps as much as 10 percent (though about half as much growth in outlays).2 By a margin of 10 to 8, the Hollings/Domenici motion carried, handing Senator Muskie his biggest defeat in his tenure as Budget Committee Chairman. Two other motions were defeated before the Hollings motion passed. The one which came closest to passing would have provided even higher defense levels than the Hollings/Domenici motion did!
As a result of the Budget Committee’s action, the Senate adopted a budget resolution calling for about $12.6 billion more in the FY 1981 defense-budget authority than was in the budget resolution passed by the House. By the time a House-Senate conference was held, Senator Muskie had become Secretary of State and Hollings had acceded to the chairmanship of the committee. That meant that Hollings led the, Senate delegation in the conference. Perhaps as a result, the conference agreed on a defense figure only $2.1 billion below that of the Senate and $10.5 billion above that of the House. The House defeated this conference report and a second conference was held. The second conference reduced the defense figure a mere $0.8 billion and this figure passed both houses.
The Budget Committee also adopted a non-binding five-year projection for defense budgeting which called for a cumulative increase over the administration’s five-year defense plan of $117.6 billion in budget authority and $95.2 billion in outlays.
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the Senate’s new mood on defense spending came in June and July 1980 when it considered the FY 1981 defense-authorization bill. Though the authorization bill covers only about 30 percent of the total defense budget—that part which goes for weapons procurement and research and development—it is the part which has, over the years, been the focus of greatest controversy. The President’s revised request for FY 1981 was $46.9 billion. This was about 6 percent more in constant dollars than President Ford’s request of $29.9 billion for FY 1976. But whereas the Senate Armed Services Committee cut the FY 1976 request by 16 percent, it voted to increase the FY 1981 request by 11 percent, or $5 billion. Then it made some amendments to the administration’s military-manpower proposals which will result in an increase of about another billion dollars. The committee reported this bill by a vote of 16 to 1. The only negative vote was cast by Senator Carl Levin who, however, ended up voting for the bill on the Senate floor.
Senator Culver voted for the bill in committee although he appended a single sentence to the committee’s report explaining that while he believed the bill contained “excessive funding for certain projects,” he was voting for it so that “the full Senate could work its will.”
Yet when the bill reached the floor the normally feisty Senator Culver offered no amendments to cut the projects which he regarded as excessively funded, or even to identify which exactly these projects were. (There was something else curious about Culver’s explanation. The Senate surely would work its will on defense authorizations irrespectively of how Senator Culver, or any other Senator, voted in committee on a particular bill. Unlike treaties or new substantive laws, it is simply not within the realm of possibility that the defense-authorization bill would die in committee, thereby putting the U.S. armed forces out of business.)
When the bill reached the floor, Senator Stennis presented it as “a new start . . . in the extensive build-up of our military services, all four of them, on a rather broad front.” He added that “we must begin on a comprehensive military modernization program.” This call for rearmament met no opposition. On the contrary, it was widely endorsed and applauded.
Senator Hart (he who in the “Great Debate” of 1975 had challenged the policy of maintaining a triad of strategic forces) told his colleagues that “I support the bill strongly” and that “a consensus is emerging that we must improve our defense capabilities.”
Senator Glenn (he who in 1975 had attacked the idea that we needed more strategic weapons) said that “we must immediately begin to shore up our national defense,” and added that “we have been woefully remiss in allowing our military preparedness to erode to its present unhappy state.”
Even Senator Culver, once the scourge of the military, took the floor not to attack the bill but rather for a genteel colloquy with Senator Nunn. Culver observed that “it is remarkable how much consensus there is between us [i.e. himself and Nunn] and on our committee as to what we really have to do to strengthen our military capabilities.” Nunn replied with the remark that Culver “has been the leader in making sure that . . . the MX is not diluted and is not jeopardized. He is . . . largely responsible for the committee’s coming out with a very strong position on the MX.” (The committee’s vote on the MX was unanimous.)
Not a single amendment was offered to cut even a dollar from the committee’s recommendation, despite the fact that the bill contained funding for many weapons which had been controversial in the past, and that it added many items which the administration opposed, such as deploying 100 additional Minutemen III ICBM’s in place of Minuteman II’s and reactivating an aircraft carrier and a battleship currently in mothballs. A few amendments which were offered to countermand committee recommendations were all formulated so as to shift funds from one defense category to another, carefully avoiding any reduction in the total allocation.
Watching the deliberations on the defense-authorization bill, a veteran observer of the Senate might have felt disconcerted by the strangeness of it all. If so, he probably would have been reassured when he saw Senator George McGovern rise to offer an amendment. He would have felt even more encouraged to learn that McGovern’s co-sponsors were Senators Mark Hatfield, William Proxmire, and Gaylord Nelson, altogether as steadfast a quartet of defense cutters as the Senate has known. Here, at last, would be a familiar ritual. But the observer’s hopes would have been disappointed. The McGovern-Hatfield-Proxmire-Nelson amendment did not seek to cut the authorization, but to increase it! The purpose was to add some millions in order to double the size of education bonuses available to those who enlist in parts of the Reserve and thereby to improve the quality of the Reserve forces. It almost seemed that the doves were seeking a “non-militaristic” way of joining in the new pro-defense spirit.
Such dissension as could be observed regarding the defense-authorization bill tended to come more from those who thought it was too small than from those who thought it was too large. The two ranking Republicans on the Armed Services Committee made it clear that they supported even bigger increases but settled for the committee’s $6-billion add-on as a “start.” Senator Tower said: “My personal assessment—and one that I believe is shared by a majority of the committee and, in fact, the Senate—is that we should be doing more.” Senator Strom Thurmond expressed the opinion that “it is imperative that the United States undertake to increase defense spending at an annual rate of 10 to 20 percent.”
There were also some amendments offered and passed in favor of greater defense efforts. One, by Senator Domenici, increased funding for development of an ABM missile-defense system, the deployment of which would entail abrogation of the only existing SALT treaty. Domenici’s amendment was adopted by voice vote.
So was Senator Thomas Eagleton’s amendment entitled “Enhanced Civil-Defense Program.” While it adds no new funding in FY 1981, it requires the President “to develop and implement a civil-defense program” designed “to enhance the survivability of the American people and its leadership in the event of nuclear war and thereby to improve the basis for eventual recovery” and “to enhance deterrence and to contribute to perceptions of the overall United States-Soviet strategic balance and crisis stability, and to reduce the possibility that the United States might be susceptible to coercion by an enemy in times of increased tensions.”
In the end the Senate adopted an FY 1981 authorization about 40 percent larger in real terms than its FY 1976 bill. The vote on final passage of the bill was 84 to 3.
In casting the sole vote in committee against the authorization bill, Senator Levin said, in his printed dissent: “[This] is not to say that I do not believe that some reasonable increases are justified above the President’s Fiscal Year 1981 defense budget request.”
Thus the politics of defense within the Senate have come to a point at which President Carter’s proposed 3-percent real growth is a baseline which both hawks and doves agree is too low. From here the debate will be about how much more than this is necessary.
Among the questions which now present themselves are whether the Senate will continue on this new course during the next few years and whether it will be joined by the House. The answer to both questions is yes.
There are three reasons for predicting that the Senate’s new mood is more likely to deepen than to dissipate in the early 1980’s. First, it is being fed by powerful wellsprings of public opinion. The Harris Survey reported in June 1980 that when Americans were presented with a list of twenty areas of federal spending and asked which ones they would wish to see cut, defense spending came out nineteenth. Social security was the only other category which fewer respondents wished to cut.
The implication of these findings is confirmed by other surveys. NBC News/Associated Press surveys show that in the early months of 1980 support for increased defense spending ranged from 55 percent to 74 percent while support for decreased defense spending ranged from 5 percent to 13 percent. The highly respected National Opinion Research Center (NORC) provides additional evidence. In 1980, as in previous years, NORC asked people whether the United States is spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on the military. In 1973, 12 percent of its respondents said “too little” and 40 percent said “too much.” In 1978, 29 percent said “too little” while 24 percent said “too much.” In 1980, 60 percent said “too little” while only 12 percent said “too much.”
Whether the Senate led the public, the public pushed the Senate, or whether the Senate and the public reached similar conclusions separately is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the new mood of the Senate parallels a new mood among the electorate, and the two are bound to be mutually reinforcing.
Second, the Senate’s shift on defense legislation was accompanied by changes in the Senate itself. Some of the most powerful doves of the 1970’s, notably J. William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield, were gone, and new powers were emerging in the Senate’s defense debates. Republican Senator Bob Packwood recently described the hawkish Democrat Sam Nunn as the man “who will soon inherit the mantle of both Senator Jackson and Senator Stennis as the military expert in the Senate.” And one hawkish wag recently said that “The finest thing Senator Muskie ever did for the security of this country was to accept the position of Secretary of State . . . and let Fritz Hollings take over the Budget Committee.” On the other side of the aisle, John Tower became ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee in 1977 and began using this as a platform from which to campaign for defense increases even larger than those the Senate eventually adopted.
In addition to new leaders, the Senate also had acquired a new group of gadflies—those whose bills and speeches were designed less to alter today’s decisions than to shape tomorrow’s agenda. The role of gadfly on defense matters had formerly been played by McGovern, Hatfield, and Proxmire; in the last few years, it began to be played by Garn, Wallop, and Helms. The Center also began to shift. A number of Senators whose voting records in the mid-70’s had been dovish voted regularly for higher defense spending during the past year. Some of these claimed consistency with their records despite the evidence, but others (Ford, Huddleston, Packwood, Durkin, and Hart) frankly acknowledged that their thinking had changed. A number of freshman Senators also began taking strongly pro-defense positions. These included not only Republicans and Southerners, but such non-Southern Democrats as J. James Exon of Nebraska, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, and David L. Boren of Oklahoma.
Third, the very terms of debate now seem to ordain that the pro-defense atmosphere will intensify. If there is not yet a consensus on the solutions, there is now something close to a consensus on the problem: how to strengthen America’s political and military position. Given that definition of the problem, the laws of political momentum or of human psychology all but guarantee that the debate will favor those proposing stronger measures. From the time President Nixon, early in his term, agreed that the question was not whether the U.S. ought to be in Vietnam, but only how to get the U.S. out, the doves dominated the debate on Vietnam. Now that it has been agreed that the question is not whether the military trends are adverse to the U.S. but only how to correct this, the hawks will remain on the offensive and the doves will be, as Senator McGovern recently complained is already the case, “constantly on the defensive.”
The House has already begun to join in the new mood of the Senate. In May 1980, the House took up the FY 1981 defense-authorization bill. The House Armed Services Committee reported out a bill authorizing $53.1 billion for defense. This was $6.2 billion more than the administration requested, an increase of 13.2 percent, probably the largest committee add-on to a defense-authorization bill in history. The committee’s recommendation was even $1.2 billion higher than the amount which the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended and the Senate adopted a month later.
The increases in the defense bill were denounced by the administration when the bill reached the House floor. Yet despite the administration’s opposition, the House passed the committee bill by a vote of 338 to 62. Not a penny was cut from the bill on the House floor. In contrast to past years, only two amendments aimed at cutting the bill were offered. One, which would have delayed the MX missile, was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin. The other, a trivial matter, was defeated in a voice vote. The action on the defense bill provided a strong indication that the mood which took hold in the Senate last year has begun to spread to the House.
The 96th Congress has changed the direction of U.S. defense policy, insofar as that policy is set on Capitol Hill. The 97th Congress which will convene next year can be expected to take up the work of restoring America’s defenses weakened by years of neglect. Whether it can accomplish all that needs to be done remains to be seen.
1 The congressional budgeting process involves three kinds of legislation. The two traditional kinds are authorization and appropriations. The authorization is a decision to approve a program in principle. The appropriation formally confers on an executive agency the authority to spend money. Only certain categories of defense spending require annual authorization—mainly weapons procurement and research. These are regarded as the more discretionary parts of the defense budget. In recent years a third step has been added: the adoption of annual budget resolutions. These encompass the entire federal budget and are designed to guide the appropriation process by balancing the allocation for each function of the federal government against that for every other.
2 The federal budget is considered in two categories: Budget Authority and Outlay. Budget Authority means assuming a debt. Outlay means writing the check. Because many weapons take years to build from the time they are ordered, and because they are not paid for in full in advance, the amount of money the Defense Department contracts to spend in any year is different from the amount it actually spends. This is true for all other branches of government as well.