All the Smartest People in D.C. Agree On This One Issue

The words "bipartisan consensus" sound almost nostalgic in today's zealously fractious Washington, D.C., but that is what happened Monday. Of course, not in Congress though, because that's just too much to ask.

A group of 25 think tank scholars representing 10 politically and ideologically different think tanks sent a letter to the Department of Defense (DoD) demanding budget reform. The letter, titled "Defense Reform Consensus," urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees to:

1. Close excess bases and facilities,
2. Reexamine the size and structure of the DoD civilian workforce, and
3. Reform military compensation.

The consensus is a product of the signed think tanks' concern that the DoD's budget threatens "the viability of America's volunteer military." The Wall Street Journal first reported about this last week as being spearheaded by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The signatory think tanks include the giants of think tanks — the conservative American Enterprise Institute, libertarian Koch-supported Cato Institute, the centrist-ish Brookings Institution, and the progressive Center for American Progress.

A notable absence among the signatories is the Heritage Foundation, which has previously argued against budget cuts for the military.

The letter advocates for some potential political bombshells, most specifically reducing the DoD's civilian workforce by 82,000. These suggestions however are not out of the blue, as there has already been calls for reduced DoD budgets in the face of the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The sequestration cuts took the biggest chunk out of the DoD specifically.

While the think tanks admittedly concede they do not agree on the measures to implement the changes, they do all press the need to "transform" the military to meet the changes of a modern world. The letter (published on page 4 of Monday's The Hill newspaper - PDF below) acknowledges the difficulty of this request but urges the need for it: 

"None of these reforms will be easy, painless, or popular. But they are absolutely essential to maintaining a strong national defense over the long term. These smart and responsible initiatives should be undertaken by Pentagon and Congressional leaders regardless of the level of defense spending. While these reforms are necessary, they are not of themselves sufficient to meet the fiscal and strategic challenges the military currently faces."

The unprecedented collaboration shown in this letter (and obviously the analysis that went behind it) should be an opening salvo in bipartisan communication on issues. The DoD is just one of the major government services desperately hurtling towards budgetary trouble. The think tanks should similarly tackle Social Security and Medicare, programs that are on their way to becoming insolvent. 

Of course that is wishful thinking, since social programs are the foundation of policy divergence in American politics. Nonetheless, the consortium of these think tank luminaries is laudable.

It would be conjecture to estimate what kind of impact this letter will have but this is an ideal example of what policy work should be — analyzing issues and coming up with multi-faceted solutions.