Pursuing the trivial in defense budget. Some lawmakers say Congress goes too far to keep tabs on Pentagon

When overseeing the military, members of Congress sometimes seem to be playing ``Trivial Pursuit.'' Among other things, Congress this year will likely order the Pentagon to report on the feasiblity of selling US meat at United States bases overseas. It will tell military bands they must use US-made pianos when playing at patriotic events.

Details such as these have helped make the bill outlining 1986 defense programs, which should finally pass Congress this week, 500 pages long. They may also show that congressional defense oversight, as well as Pentagon managment, needs some repair work.

``If we are going to demand reform in the Department of Defense, we are going to have to reform ourselves,'' said Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia earlier this month.

The issue of general defense reform is now enjoying something of a boom in Washington. On Oct. 16, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a study that called for vast changes in the Pentagon hierarchy -- among them, formation of a new senior officer group to give military advice to the President.

Key House members have said they support similar changes. Think tanks and symposia have been churning out reports on the subject.

While much attention focuses on possible shuffling of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, less is accorded the fact that most defense reformers see Congress as part of the problem.

``Major changes in the way we conduct our business are long overdue,'' said Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in an Oct. 1 speech.

A key problem, according to Senator Goldwater, is Congress's obsession with the utmost detail of the defense budget. In 1970, Congress made 650 changes in the Pentagon's budget request, before passing it; last year, 1,848 alterations were made. Some were less than earth-shaking: the Army request for smoke-grenade launchers was altered; the Navy's request for parachute flares was pared back.

Congress risks becoming ``lost in the trees of program management, unable to see the policy forest,'' says a recent report from the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some congressional aides grumble that the Pentagon has brought such micro-management on itself by purchasing coffee pots for $4,700 and wrenches for more than one-way airfare from L.A. to Hawaii. Others say the problems stem from the proliferation of committees and subcommittees interested in armed-service affairs.

Just about everybody involved agrees that the defense budget process itself is an unparalleled mess.

Defense budget problems are a subset of the chaos that the entire US budget process has fallen into in recent years, with Congress routinely falling months behind and appropriations bills stacking up like jetliners waiting to land at rush hour.

On Oct. 29, for instance, the House of Representatives was scheduled to consider for the last time the 1986 defense authorization bill, which sets the spending outline for military programs. Immediately following, the House will debate the defense appropriations bill, which will parcel out cash for those same programs.

Critics complain that this process, which takes most of Congress's energy devoted to defense, ensures that members will focus on how much the US military costs, instead of how well it functions.

``The whole defense debate in the US is not conducted at the level of principle. It's conducted at the budget level,'' said Brookings Institution military analyst Michael MccGwire in a recent interview.

The first change most critics suggest is to switch the Pentagon from an annual to a two-year budget cycle. A step in this direction has already been made: The Pentagon would have to begin submitting trial two-year budgets in 1987 under a provision in this year's authorization bill.

Congressional micro-management might be reduced by combining current budget line items into larger ``force packages,'' says an aide to Senator Nunn.

And Congress could be encouraged to think more about defense quality, and less about defense budgets, says the Senate Armed Services Committee reform report. For one thing, congressional hearings could be organized more often around themes of defense missions -- air defense, perhaps, or quality of US armor.

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