On May 8, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., in which he stated: "The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today — as a Defense Department and as a country. Given America's difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny."
He went on to say: "Eisenhower strongly believed that the United States — indeed, any nation — could only be as militarily strong as it was economically dynamic and fiscally sound."
I could not agree more, as do, I believe, my constituents in the Texas 11th Congressional district. Every day I hear from them, and they all tell me the same thing: They, the citizens of America, are fed up with expanding government, out-of-control spending, annual budget deficits and the exploding national debt.
As the economy continues to struggle to recover from the great recession and voters begin to realize the immense financial burden that awaits their children and grandchildren, I believe the American people will demand more responsibility in how our growing government spends their tax dollars. Defense is by far the largest portion of discretionary spending in the national budget and should receive scrutiny equal to that of the rest of the government. For that reason, conventional wisdom expects a relative freeze in our defense budget, making it increasingly important that available money is spent wisely and accounted for completely.
As I told the secretary of Defense at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 3:
"Mr. Secretary, the Department of Defense is unauditable. ... There's $636 billion that we spend every year, and we don't know that we spend it correctly. ... The only way that's going to happen is if the Department of Defense and all of its variety of agencies have clean audits."
Competition will also be critical to positive results, which is one reason that my colleagues and I feel so strongly about the need for an alternative engine for the F35 fighter plane (the F136). I recently signed a letter with Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) in support of the F136. While Congress and the secretary of Defense may disagree on this specific issue, we completely agree on the overarching issue of wasteful defense spending and excessive overhead and will work closely to provide what our country needs to defend itself within the parameters of what our economy will allow.
Threats, real and perceived, do exist — from economic and military powers such as China, to unstable rogue regimes with nuclear ambitions such as Iran, to transnational jihadist terrorists such as al- Qaida. Ironically, the most significant threat to our national security is not an external foe, but an internal weakness, our debilitating financial situation. Our economy is our mightiest weapon, and if we continue down the path that the Obama administration is leading us, we will be vulnerable and exposed with only ourselves to blame.
Comprehensive reform must be adopted that includes both mandatory and discretionary spending. Every component of government has serious issues and competing priorities. Tough choices must be made. Government must exercise actual discretion when budgeting so-called discretionary spending and must implement much-needed reform to our myriad unsustainable entitlements. Everyone will sacrifice together if we address this problem as a country. Every day that passes without meaningful action, the longer and more difficult the journey becomes.
Secretary Gates' recent comments regarding the inherent bond between the strength of our economy and the security of our nation are timely and accurate. I applaud him for identifying this reality and bringing it to the forefront of the discussion. As the man responsible for the largest amount of discretionary spending in America's budget, his pledge sets a manifest example for the rest of government and the country. I hope this will become a driving force for change and assist to rein in the current administration's unsustainable spending. We do not have the luxury of abdicating this responsibility; change is imperative.
This November, when voters choose their future, I predict that the results will speak loud and clear. Americans are sick and tired of reckless spending. Threats still exist, but that doesn't equate to a blank check for defense spending. America needs fiscal responsibility, its citizens will demand it, and our national security requires it.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is a member of the Armed Services Committee.