Wedged between the Democrats’ rousing San Francisco convention and the Republicans’ upcoming renomination of President Ronald Reagan in Dallas later this month, the current midsummer session of the U.S. Congress was bound to resemble a practice bout for the November elections. The legislators face not only a
heavy backlog of unfinished business —including 10 of the 13 basic spending bills for the fiscal year beginning in October—but also a host of contentious issues ranging from immigration reform to Central American aid. Last week the burning issue was defence spending.
With intense, election-year manoeuvring already under way, Washington’s
arms budget—likely to exceed $290 billion this year—spurred a public clash between the Democratic-controlled House appropriations committee and Reagan’s defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger. At issue was a scathing 376-page report by the House committee’s staff. Released last week, it charged that the combat “readiness” of United States forces has deteriorated seriously despite nearly $890 billion in arms appropriations since 1981. The 18-month inquiry warns that “the United States Army cannot be sustained in combat for any extended period of time”; that the navy’s capacity to “sustain full combat air and surface operations” for more than a week is in doubt; and that the air force “is not capable of conducting sustained conventional war operations” against the Soviets. The report concedes that there has been a substantial growth in weapons development and nuclear arms. But it argues that shortages in aircraft, spare parts, personnel, fuel storage capacity, casualty care and munitions “present severe limitations in the capacity to sustain war against Soviet forces.”
Weinberger’s reaction to the report was instantaneous—and furious. At a news conference last week he accused the Democratic-run committee of playing election-year politics and of endangering national security. Argued Weinberger: “It is important that the people of the United States and indeed the people of the world not be given any kind of false impression as to the lack of improvement in the war-fighting, operational capability of the armed forces.” He attacked the House appropriations committee for “leading the way in reducing and eliminating needed defence funding” during both the Carter and Reagan presidencies. Said Weinberger: “The reductions that this committee recommended in fiscal 1983 were $20.3 billion below the amount we felt was necessary.”
That exchange was the opening round in what promises to be a bitter electoral season. Mondale and his allies in Congress are sure to press their charges that waste, corruption, expensive weapons systems and cost overruns have actually undermined United States defences. Former Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and other “neoliberal” military reformers have argued for years that the Pentagon relies too heavily on high-tech arms which often prove positively dangerous in combat conditions. There is a host of examples—from the jam-prone M-16 rifles of the Vietnam era to the multimillion-dollar Hughes Aircraft missiles rejected last month by the navy for shoddy workmanship. The army’s and the navy’s decision to ground 4,700 “Huey” and “Cobra” heli-
copters last May due to flaws in their rotor mechanisms added further fuel to the argument.
Indeed, despite Weinberger’s angry rebuttal, congressional testimony from top-ranking military officers earlier this year lent support to the House committee’s charges. NATO commander Gen. Bernard Rogers, for one, flatly stated that his command would be “unable to sustain its conventional forces in combat for long.” Other top commanders agreed that shortages of such unglamorous items as food supplies, fuel, spare tires, tank treads and ammunition would strain their forces’ fighting abilities within days.
A heated defence debate likely will mean that there will be more rhetoric than progress on many of the bills before Congress. Indeed, Congress may not make any headway until it resumes its sitting in September. One early test of whether partisan squabbling will stymie the current session may come over efforts to reconcile conflicting versions of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and—far more narrowly—by the Democratic House of Representatives. Dozens of differences, many of them politically sensitive, remain to be resolved. The bill aims to curb the huge influx of illegal migrants, mainly Mexicans and other Latin Americans, across the United States’ “fourth frontier” along the Rio Grande. But its main impact—imposing penalties on employers who hire “undocumented aliens” —has stirred passionate opposition from Hispanic Americans who fear that they too may suffer discrimination. Both presidential nominee Walter Móndale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, have opposed it. Together with rising protests from Hispanics, that will make passage of any compromise bill exceedingly difficult.
Central American aid may prove less contentious, mainly because the Reagan administration last week backed away from a renewed call for funding the CIA’s surrogate war against Nicaragua (page 29). The administration had planned to ask Congress to approve an additional $21 million (U.S.) in aid for the antiSandinista “contras” this session. But it concluded that the request—rebuffed sharply by the House two months ago—stood little chance of passage. As a result, White House strategists plan to ask for much less money—perhaps $4 million—to keep the contras in operation. They will then focus on winning a further $28-million grant for the rebels in fiscal 1985.
By contrast, the White House is making what Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar describes as “a full-court press” for $117 million in military aid to El Salvador this year. And it stands an
excellent chance of getting it. Salvadoran President José Napoléon Duarte visited Reagan in Washington last week and lobbied congressional leaders. The White House contends that guerrillas are timing for an offensive to coincide with the U.S. election campaign.
But the matter that stirred political passions most in Washington last week was the U.S. defence budget. Arguably, blame for the deficiencies cited in last week’s report is a shared responsibility of the White House, Congress and U.S. service chiefs. Weinberger has been pliant in the face of hardware requests by
the armed services since he became defence secretary. United States commanders, in turn, have seized on the administration’s generosity to obtain a cornucopia of state-of-the-art weapons. For their part, most congressmen view defence spending strictly as a function of how many jobs it generates in their districts. Taken together, as last week’s debate indicated, the constellation of conflicting interests may well have led the United States into fielding armed forces of high sophistication—and even higher unreliability.
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