Deficit hysteria has reached new levels yet where is the attention to anout of control defense budget that is now the largest since World War II? While the Obama Admistration’s three-year freeze on discretionary spending is a bad idea, it’s made even worse because unprecedented Pentagon spending is exempted from it.
Who would know from all of the whining about budget deficits that military spending is the largest discretionary item in the federal government? Exempting all security-related expenditures from common sense cuts will have serious consequences for almost everything the government does–from job creation, poverty reduction and alternative energy development, to aid for cash-strapped state and local governments. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute reports that non-security-related discretionary spending is already at near-historic lows as a share of GDP. At a time when foreclosures are still rising, and we face double-digit unemployment, this freeze will make digging out from the Great Recession more difficult.
On Monday, the Obama Administration requested $708 billion for the Defense Department next year–including $549 billion for its base budget and $159 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This doesn’t even include the $33 billion supplement the White House will request forits escalation in Afghanistan this year.
Just last week, Representative Barney Frank reissued his call for military cuts–a call he originally made nearly a year ago in a piece for the Nation in which he wrote, "If we do not make reductions approximating 25 percent of the military budget starting fairly soon, it will be impossible to continue to fund an adequate level of domestic activity even with a repeal of Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy." Frank’s prescient advice received little attention from the media at that time. Not surprisingly, it’s once again failed to get the attention it deserves from the mainstream press.
In fact, Monday’s Washington Post news article–not an op-ed or editorial, mind you–on Obama’s budget offers the kind of skewed frame on spending that is typical of inside the beltway thinking. The Post describes "a budget hole that is driving accumulated debt to dangerous levels" and "could damage the dollar and undermine the United States’ international standing." A New York Times headline screams "Huge Deficits May Alter U.S. Politics and Global Power"–as if we must run for the hills. "Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade," the article warns, "there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors." Finally, The Wall Street Journal offers this grim warning, "Deficit Balloons into National-Security Threat."
This kind of fearmongering obliterates any distinctions between necessary investments in areas like jobs, infrastructure, education, and alternative energy; and unnecessary and wasteful tax cuts or subsidies for wealthy folks, or defense spending that is rampant with cost overruns and corruption, and way out of scale with what is truly needed for our security. These same newspapers are engaged in media malpractice when they scare people with deficit hysteria but fail to take a critical look at the defense budget.
It doesn’t look like the Administration will resist this kind of stale thinking on defense. But if President Obama used the common sense he spoke so well about during the State of the Union he’d expose the mistaken notion that defense spending is akin to an effective jobs program–jobs every Congressional district will fight for. It doesn’t matter that economists largely "agree that military spending is one ofthe least efficient ways of creating jobs per dollar of government spending," as Washington editor Chris Hayes points out.
Dr. Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reaganand a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me, "The Administration refused to take on a lot of the investment programs that really don’t make a lot of sense at this particular time. For example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It’s having all kinds of developmental problems. And yet, they’ve put almost $11 billion in it this year to buy 45 of these things. They just had to add $314 billion over the next 5 years to the previous estimates for that program! The real issue isthat you’re asking everybody else to freeze spending, why can’t you freeze the investment part of the defense budget and force them to make some of these trade-offs?"
The unfairly maligned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets it when she takes a common sense approach to the budget. She came out with this statement yesterday, "I look forward to examining the President’s proposal to freeze spending and believe waste can be found in all departments and agencies–including the Defense Department–so it too must come underscrutiny…. Curbing military contractors’ wasteful practices must be part of our efforts to restore accountability, transparency, and fiscal discipline to the federal budget."
Even House Minority Leader John Boehner said the Pentagon shouldn’t be exempted and "there’s got to be wasteful spending there, unnecessary spending there."
What’s usually ignored is that there are smart and effective ways to devise an alternative approach to defense spending which would allow for needed cuts and needed security. For example, the annual Unified Security Budget–a project of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies– takes a hard look at "spending on offense (military forces), defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement)" in order to consider security spending comprehensively and make recommendations on cuts and reforms. It proposes cuts of over $60 billion in weapons systems (including reducing the US nuclear arsenal to 600 warheads and 400 in reserve), and significant reforms to the Pentagon procurement system to reduce waste. Another area which needs a fresh look is spending on US bases overseas, which Anita Dancs, an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, puts at $250 billion annually. These bases are also anti-democratic, and there is a growing movement of citizens in host nations who oppose the US presence.
These kinds of reforms go towards a smart question raised by Matthew Yglesias today: "The problem here is that while targeting defense waste always has some support, there are few politicians willing to question the real driver of Pentagon cost — the American military’s global mission." That is indeed the larger overarching issue of America’s role in world—Globocop or Republic?
We can do better on security by spending less and much more wisely on defense. There are scores of groups already working to bring sanity to our defense budget and engagement with the world. And members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have shown some moxie in advancing the Unified Security Budget as a smart alternative. Maybe these painful cuts will galvanize more Americans to think hard about what real security means. Right now, for those who understand what’s at stake with these budget priorities, it’s high time to tell your legislator sand the White House that if there is indeed going to be any freeze on spending, the exorbitant defense budget should be included in that.