Lindsey Graham Is Wrong about the Biden Defense Budget

Lindsey Graham Is Wrong about the Biden Defense Budget

According to Graham and his colleagues, President Joe Biden’s budget for FY2024 of $866 billion is at least $40 billion short of what the Pentagon needs due to inflation. That math doesn’t check out.


Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden should be congratulated for getting Congress to pass the debt limit deal in a timely manner with large majorities in both houses of Congress. Given the fact that we have a divided government, it is not surprising that some members of both parties, like the Republican’s Freedom Caucus and the Democrat’s Progressive Caucus are unhappy with some parts of the bill.

Among the most vociferous critics, of what they believe is a fatal flaw in the deal, have been Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and five of his Senate Republican colleagues. These six senators contend that the adoption of President Biden’s proposed defense budget of $886 billion for FY2024 will undermine our security. According to Graham and his colleagues, the Biden defense budget for FY2024 of $866 billion is at least $40 billion short of what the Pentagon needs to keep pace with the Chinese military buildup because, when one factors in inflation for the FY2024 budget, it actually represents a real decline from the FY2023 budget of $841 billion. Senator Graham actually called the Biden defense budget a joke and said if Republicans adopt it, they will be doing a disservice to the party of Ronald Reagan.


But close examination reveals that, for at least five reasons, this argument is without merit.

First, the five-year plan for defense spending that Biden proposed in early 2021 projected that he would be spending $775 billion in FY2024 for defense. The amount approved in the budget deal is over $100 billion or 14 percent more than that projection and more than enough to keep pace with inflation. Moreover, in real terms, it is more than we spent at the height of the Reagan buildup and $146 billion, or 20 percent, above former President Donald Trump's last budget of $740 billion in FY2021.

Second, many of those supporters of spending more on defense argue that, because of the mandatory spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, often referred to as sequestration, our military capabilities actually declined over the past decade. But this argument is also without merit. The Pentagon got around sequestration by using the warfighting budget, which was supposed to fund only our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore was not subject to sequestration, as a slush fund. For example, the Pentagon used funds from the warfighting budget to fund programs like the European Defense Initiative—which had nothing to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but did improve our contributions to NATO, thus helping us deal with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the Budget Control Act did not undermine our military capabilities. For example, in 2016, six years after the enactment of the Act, General David Petraeus, who commanded our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and also ran the CIA, argued in a 2016 article that the state of our military was “awesome.”  And in his four years in office, former President Trump actually increased defense spending by over $100 billion.

Third, Senator Graham and many of his supporters argue that the Pentagon can and should get more money because the Department of Defense’s share of the gross national product is at historic lows. This argument is also without merit. Neither defense nor any other federal program is entitled to a fixed share of the GDP. For example, what would happen if the threat increased, and the economy declined? Should defense spending be reduced? Moreover, at its current level, the Pentagon spends more than the next ten countries in the world combined, including three times more than China and ten times more than Russia.

Fourth, keeping the FY2024 defense budget level will prevent us from spending the appropriate amount on military equipment to help Ukraine fight its war with Russia and to deter China from invading Taiwan. But this argument ignores the fact that the $48.9 billion in military aid that has already been authorized for Ukraine is funded separately from the proposed $886 billion budget and Taiwan is actually paying for the vast majority of the equipment that we are and will be sending to them.

Fifth, the argument that the Pentagon needs more funds to protect our security ignores the fact that much of the money that the Pentagon receives is wasted. According to a recent 60 Minutes interview with Shay Assad—the former senior contract and awards negotiator for the Pentagon under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—military contractors routinely overcharge the Department of Defense for what it buys each year because there is not much competition for defense contracts. According to Assad, the average profitability for defense items rose in the Cold War from 12 to 15 percent to about 40 percent today. This position is shared by Speaker McCarthy and Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate’s number two Democrat. Durbin argues that one of the reasons that Pentagon spending keeps increasing is because of price gouging from defense contractors. McCarthy points out that the $866 billion agreed in the budget deal is the most we have ever spent on defense and that since the Pentagon has failed its last five audits, he knows that there are many efficiencies to be found.

If the Appropriations Committees keep these points in mind, they should not feel it is necessary to add funds to the FY2024 defense budget which is already at historic highs. In fact, the party of Ronald Reagan needs to realize that, in real terms, this budget is almost $200 billion above the peak of Reagan’s defense budget build-up.

By supporting the bipartisan deal, including the defense portion, the party of Ronald Reagan will not only provide the Pentagon with what it needs to protect our security, but also help the country deal with the immense budget deficits that will undermine our security if allowed to continue.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Army.