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Security or subsidies: Mr. McDonnell and the Virginia delegation go to Washington September 28, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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by Mariah Quinn and Matt Leatherman

Elected officials across the country know how closely their constituents’ job security affects their own.  Virginia’s congressional delegation and the administration in Richmond have lived richly, though, relishing an unemployment rate more than a quarter better than the national average (7% relative to 9.6%).  Indeed, certain parts of Virginia have unemployment rates harkening back to the pre-recession glory days – Arlington and Fairfax counties come in at an enviable 4.2% and 5.0%, for instance, while York County in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area looks similar, at 5.7%.

Fortune is running short even in these areas, though, after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates detailed the “Defense Efficiency Initiative” on August 9. With the stated aim of reducing the number of contractors by 10 percent per year for the next three years, more than 30,000 defense contracting jobs are on the chopping block, undercutting the boom towns just outside Washington where many of these jobs are located.  Gates’ decision to close the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, home to 2,800 military and civilian personnel and 3,300 contractors, means that similar pain is in store for Virginia’s coastal money makers as well.

Small wonder then that a rhetorical storm erupted in the state after Gates’ announcement.  Efficiency, it seems, might not be in Virginia’s best interest.

Republican Governor Bob McDonnell led the charge, noting that “This decision will cost good quality, high paying jobs for thousands of Virginians and could not come at a worse time.” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), congressman from Fairfax and a former executive at SAIC, chimed in with similar disapproval on the pages of the Washington Post.

Action speaks louder than words, though for Congressman Randy Forbes (R) and Senator Jim Webb (D).  It is on their requests that the Armed Services Committees in both chambers of Congress are holding hearings on the issue this week.

All this begs the question: Are we talking security or stimulus? Judging from their comments, it seems that politicians of both parties think that national security means national subsidies for the Old Dominion State.

It doesn’t.  Spending on defense for political, parochial, or no particular reason misrepresents American values, fuels arms racing, and elevates risk for service-members and citizens alike.  Few issues are more central to democracy than the degree to which the state and its citizens are dependent on the military.  Defense spending for specific and well-defined national security purposes is totally appropriate.  Founding economies on the military-industrial complex is not.

The trouble doesn’t stop here, though.  Other countries around the world look at America’s defense budget as an indicator of the role we intend to play in the world.  Rightly or wrongly, they assume that we intend to use the forces and equipment we buy, and competitors like China adjust their military spending accordingly.  Tripping into an unintended arms race is no problem at all at this point, and it leads to a world more heavily armed and at greater risk of war for no reason other than local economic subsidies.  That risk is concentrated on our troops, of course, but in a more general sense all Americans must bear it.

Parochialism like this has got to stop.  The Virginia contingent’s concern with a smaller part of the country – specifically their state – comes at an unreasonable cost to U.S. national security.

But it’s not just them. Gates’ proposal is not a true cost-costing measure either.   His interests are just as parochial, as he noted in the same August speech: “Let me be clear, the task before us is not to reduce the department’s top line budget.”

The cut to Virginia may strike the state’s leadership as a deep one, but ultimately, the Pentagon is using a knife that spreads rather than the one that cuts. Gates’ statements, along with the hearings and the full-court press being put on by the VA delegation imply that, when the rhetorical storm blows past, the planned “efficiencies” might get swept right along with it.

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