Members of Congress -- most notably Republican leaders -- may be wailing and gnashing their teeth about Pentagon spending and the deficit. But the record shows that lawmakers must take considerable responsibility for a ``rearm America'' program of unprecedented peacetime proportions. They signed off on 95 percent of what the Reagan administration sought in defense increases since 1980, which resulted in a 72 percent cumulative increase totaling $1.2 trillion. They assented to 33 new (or substantially expanded) strategic and conventional weapons, raising the annual base price for those items alone from $6 billion to nearly $46 billion. In some cases (such as the M-1 tank), they ordered more than the US Army requested.
The ``bow wave'' of military procurement, in other words, is now rolling over Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, just as many analysts predicted it would. And because of past congressional actions, cutting defense spending in the future is likely to get even harder. Such actions have resulted in the ``uncontrollable'' part of the defense budget (outlays tied to earlier legislative commitments) rising from 27 percent five years ago to 36 percent today. Such spending, according to the Commerce Department, will likely reach 43 percent of the defense total before the end of the decade.
``The administration's $314 billion 1986 defense request . . . mostly represents `old business','' Budget Director David Stockman told the Senate Budget Committee last week: ``The 1986 funding installment of a wide range of policy requirements . . . which have already been debated and endorsed by the Congress over the past five years.''
``There is practically nothing `new' in it,'' Mr. Stockman added. ``Those who loudly advocate a defense budget authority freeze are playing Rip Van Winkle.''
As the battle of the budget (1986 edition) gains momentum, the congressional role in defense budgets is receiving unusual attention. Liberals say legislators are too acquiescent in the face of White House pressure and local defense contractors' blandishments. Conservatives charge members of Congress with ``micro-managing'' defense in a way that adds to the cost while reducing military effectiveness.
``The manner in which Congress has come to deal with the Pentagon has exacerbated problems rather than solved them,'' asserts Theodore Crackel, a retired officer who taught at the US Army War College and is now with the Heritage Foundation. ``Instead of focusing on broad military policy and spending guidelines, congressmen have become ever more involved in minutiae.''
The congressional defense budget process, Mr. Crackel charges, ``prompts the services to protect marginal programs that should be killed and discourages effective testing that would indicate where weakness lies, . . . builds in delays, and drives costs up and efficiency down.''
``Increasing and often self-serving attention is paid to the wrong aspect of a problem,'' Crackel adds; ``attacking the price of individual spare parts, for example, rather than the contracting process that allows and even promotes such pricing.''
``The line-item by line-item budgeting embraced by Congress in recent decades has created perverse incentives in the defense acquisition system,'' he argues. ``By budgeting for a specific weapon, rather than providing funds to accomplish the task or mission for which the weapon is intended, the services are encouraged to shield marginal programs from scrutiny. . . . As a result, the services tend to fix and patch whatever problems emerge on that weapon rather than scrap it, try to sell an alternative approach, and obtain approval for new funds.''
Gordon Adams, defense analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, calls the Reagan military budgets ``weapons-driven.''
``Weapons programs grow spending `tails,' with roughly 58 percent of available funds being spent in the second and third year after appropriation,'' he says. ``Obligations to weapons programs leave a legacy of spending, a backlog of uncontrollable funds that commit future administrations to even more spending.''
In an interview this week, President Reagan said he wants to pursue space-based missile defenses even if arms control negotiations result in large reductions in nuclear arsenals.
Looking ahead, analysts see the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) for shooting down enemy missiles in space as likely to create a future spending bow wave of its own.
For 1986, the administration wants to increase ``star wars'' spending by 250 percent to $3.7 billion. But according to a report issued this week by the Federation of American Scientists and the National Committee to Save the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the strategic defense program is likely to total $70 billion over the 10-year period through 1993. This figure (which covers research and development, but not deployment) is based on the estimates of two private sources: the Defense Marketing Service and the Electronic Industries Association.
``Clearly, what is at issue here is whether the SDI develops such institutional momentum that it becomes a political juggernaut,'' said John Pike of the scientists' federation.
If that happens, Congress just as clearly will find itself awash in another bow wave. Chart: Congress and Reagan's defense buildup (In billions of dollars)
'81 '82 '83 '84 '85 Total Reagan requested $177.1 $221.8 $257.5 $273.4 $305.0 $1,234.8 Congress appropriated $178.4 $213.8 $239.5 $258.2 $284.3 $1,174.2 Proportion of Reagan 101% 96% 93% 94% 93% 95% request appropriated Real growth rate 12.7% 12.2% 7.6% 4.4% 5.8% ---- Source: Office of Management and Budget