The Skeptics

The Growing Hysteria About the Fake Pentagon Cuts

Pentagon boosters are in hysterics about military spending cuts that barely exist. Leading the charge is the secretary of defense. Back when he took office, the conventional wisdom was that Leon Panetta was there to manage defense budget cuts. It turns out that he will say just about anything to prevent them, as Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out the other day.

Panetta has said that a $500 billion defense cut over a decade would raise the unemployment rate by one percent, which would make sense only if money saved on defense disappeared rather than winding up elsewhere in the economy. But that isn’t even the silliest claim Panetta made in a recent interview with George Will. Will writes that Panetta is not given to hyperbole before proving the opposite with a fearmongering Panetta quote about cyberattacks so wild that it would make Richard Clarke blush. Expect Panetta to include more threat inflation in the talking points he is working up to help the services lobby Congress against cuts.

Panetta is hardly the only defense official cranking up the fear machine to stave off defense cuts. The retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned against big cuts in a speech Tuesday by claiming that the 1990s defense cuts “almost broke” the force. That statement would makes sense if “ broke” meant the same thing as “strained.” And it was more overuse than funding that caused the strain. The U.S. military is not that easily broken.

However, this week’s prize for overwrought statements about the consequences of defense cuts goes to Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), the chairman of House Armed Services Committee. He said that a big defense cut might lead to the reintroduction of the draft, a move almost no one supports.

The irony of this drama is that the deficit deal (Budget Control Act) does not require defense cuts. Neither its budget caps nor sequestration provision is likely to deliver big defense cuts in the near future.

Caitlin Talmadge and I explain why in an op-ed that ran in Politico Tuesday. Updating analysis I posted here in early August, we show how the White House conjured up that $350 billion in defense cuts over ten years that Washington’s media has so credulously reported as real. We also explain why Congress is unlikely to allow the sequestration of defense funds.

Two points in the op-ed bear elaboration. We write that the supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in savings to avoid sequestration might claim declining war costs as cuts that get it toward the mark. That temptation exists because the Congressional Budget Office, which sets the baseline that cuts are compared against, assumes that current war costs remain constant. Since we wrote, the White House asked the supercommittee to do what we predicted—count as savings war money that was never likely to be spent.

We also warned that because the act’s spending caps do not cover war funding, Congress may attempt to hide defense costs by moving them into the war bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee did just that last week when it released its proposed spending limits for fiscal year 2012. We write that though the committee proposed a miniscule cut to non-war (or base) Pentagon spending—$2.9 billion compared with base 2011 spending, less than one percent—they moved more than twice that from the base into the war bill. Since writing, thanks to Russell Rumbaugh, we learned that the real amount is closer to $10 billion. That gimmick is a predictable outcome of funding wars and standard military expenses separately.