The cardinal rule of bargaining is that the first number you propose should never be the number you actually think you can get, and nobody knows this better than the Defense Department. In September the Army Times reported that the Pentagon was preparing to box the new president in to a major increase in military spending by drawing up a budget before the election had been decided. The number it eventually leaked was $584 billion, a whopping increase of $68.6 billion over last year. It was kind of like telling the new boss that your old boss had already agreed to give you a $100,000 raise. In any other context, the sheer hubris would get you fired or laughed out of the room.
But the Pentagon budget is ruled by the appropriations equivalent of quantum physics, in which the normal rules of constraint do not apply. We still don’t know how much the Obama administration is planning to give the Pentagon–the announcement of the number has been postponed–but reports indicate the number will likely be $527 billion, around an 8 percent increase instead of the 12 percent the Pentagon requested.
Despite that fact, propagandists like neoconservative Robert Kagan are already crying foul, arguing that the increase is insufficient and–more insidious–will cost jobs at a time when we’re losing half a million a month. Military spending “is exactly the kind of expenditure that can have an immediate impact on the economy,” Kagan recently wrote in the Washington Post, and any cuts would be a sign to the world that “the American retreat has begun.”
“It seems like kind of the game they play every year,” Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told me when I asked her about the rumored budget numbers. “The Pentagon puts out this hugely inflated number, and then it turns out that the ‘cut’ is from that hugely inflated number, so the Pentagon still wins. The number is $40 billion more than we spent last year.”
You may think Barack Obama has the toughest job in Washington, but for my money it’s Pemberton. Since 1989, when she left academia with a PhD in English, she’s worked as an advocate for reining in the military-industrial complex in favor of a broader, less militarized approach to international security. Each year she and former Reagan Pentagon official and Center for American Progress senior fellow Lawrence Korb write an alternate Unified Security Budget. Their 2009 version identified $61 billion in cuts to military programs that could be made “with no sacrifice to our security.”
Cutting the military budget has been a staple of the progressive agenda for decades, of course, but it’s worth putting the budget numbers in context to highlight how out of control things have gotten across the Potomac in Arlington. Everybody knows that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been mind-bogglingly expensive–about a trillion-dollar bonfire. Less noticed has been the skyrocketing of non-war-specific Pentagon funding. Since 2001 the regular Pentagon budget has increased by 77 percent, while cost overruns in weapons systems have ballooned to $300 billion. “We’ve never been perfect there,” says Korb. “But it has really gotten out of hand in the last eight years.”
And those numbers don’t fully capture the explosion in security spending because they don’t capture security spending outside the Defense Department budget, in the departments of Justice, Energy, Homeland Security or the NSA and the CIA.
“Congress is not set up to consider the overall balance of what we’re spending our money on,” says Pemberton, who notes that the ratio of military to nonmilitary foreign engagement spending is eighteen to one. “Even the secretary of defense says this imbalance is not good for our security.”