With the prospect of needing to find billions for recovery from Hurricane Harvey, Congress is heading back to D.C. to vote on raising the debt ceiling. Yet what ought to be a set of straightforward tasks — avoid defaulting on the national debt and shutting down the federal government; pass an annual budget — instead is looking like an epic challenge.
A Congress that can’t agree with itself or with the president on just about anything is mostly agreed on one thing, though: The military needs billions in new money. While most Democrats would only be okay with this as long as the domestic budget also gets a boost, the Republican majority wants to hike the Pentagon budget while cutting just about everything else.
The widespread conviction that the Pentagon needs more money has to face a few facts. For one thing, it now has a bigger budget to work with, adjusting for inflation, than it did during the height of the Reagan buildup. We’re spending more than the next eight countries put together, most of which are our allies. And the Defense Department’s Inspector General reported last year that the Army’s financial statements were “materially misstated” in 2015 to the tune of $6.5 trillion.
No wonder it’s the only federal agency that still can’t pass an audit.
Yet Pentagon budget boosters are always on the lookout for new pretexts to make their case. The latest was the collision a couple of weeks ago between a U.S. guided missile destroyer and a tanker off the coast of Singapore. The bodies of the 10 sailors killed hadn’t even been pulled from the water before the talking heads began to opine that they died because the Navy is overstretched.
And what is the remedy? You guessed it. The venerable line that “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” has a corollary. It’s that under these conditions, the only visible solution is to spend more money on hammers. In the Navy’s case, they say, this means spending billions beefing up a 277-ship fleet to the nice round number of 350.
The goal of a 350-ship Navy was dealt a powerful counter-message when Harvey hit the shores of South Texas. While Congress and the administration were focused on paying to project more U.S. military power around the world, it was shortchanging the accounts needed to protect our own shores. The president’s proposed budget would make an 11 percent cut in FEMA’s budget, along with programs across numerous agencies to help people rebuild and make our infrastructure more resilient to withstand future storms.
No quantity of Navy ships could hold back Hurricane Harvey, of course. While the National Guard has a meaningful role to play in the recovery, a 350-ship Navy does not. The real contribution the Navy could make to protect our homeland from future Harveys is in helping to prevent them.
Preventing future attacks is, theoretically, the military’s bread and butter. And it has identified climate change as a major threat to our security. Climate change unquestionably made the storm surging over Texas and Louisiana worse — with warmer water increasing rainfall, the power of storms, and the surges pushed by our sea level itself, which has risen more than a foot since 1960.
The most important work the Navy could do to prevent future Harveys, therefore, is to do its part to slow climate change, in two ways.
First, it must drastically reduce its own greenhouse gas-producing emissions. The Navy actually has the best record among the service branches for its efforts and intentions to do so, but these have become distinct non-priorities in the Trump administration. Second, it needs to support a revised security budget that would apply some military money to help fund a clean energy transition for the U.S. economy as a whole.
Without such investments, we will be failing to address what the military itself calls the “urgent and growing” security threat of climate change. Meanwhile, as one defense consultant put it, “The president needs a better reason for a 350 ship Navy than his desire to command one.”