Amidst the wrangling over a debt deal between the White House and Congress, the most interesting movement pertains to military spending. Several reports today suggest that up to $700 billion in military spending cuts is under consideration, which would amount to a bit more than 10 percent less than current projections over the next ten years. A more realistic bottom line might be $300 billion, which could be achieved by allowing the budget to grow at the rate of inflation (in other words, no real cuts in spending).
As always, the devil is in the details. From what baseline? Over what time period? Would the cuts apply only to the base DoD budget, or all national security spending, including the costs of the wars, as well as the budgets for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs? Most important is timing. If the savings are all backloaded in the out years, they may never materialize. Today’s budgets project spending out five or ten years, and the “savings” really just amount to a new set of projections against that baseline. Plus, these agreements are rarely binding on future congresses; a different cast of characters will be responsible for passing DoD appropriations bills in 2018 or 2020.
One thing is clear, however. People here in Washington are now considering military spending cuts that they thought strategically unwise and politically impossible just a few years ago. And conservatives are joining in. South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney offered an amendment to the DoD budget appropriation bill that would have frozen spending at 2011 levels, a $17 billion cut below the amount voted out of committee. Meanwhile, three Democrats and three Republicans co-sponsored an amendment to cut the proposed increase in the FY 2012 budget in half, generating savings of $8.5 billion. The bad news for taxpayers is that both amendments failed. The good news is that some in the GOP are starting to match their rhetorical zeal for spending cuts with actual votes that do so; 43 Republicans voted for both measures. (h/t DSM)
It is no longer credible to declare military spending off limits in the search for savings, and most Americans understand that we can make significant cuts without undermining U.S. security. (William Kristol being one of the predictable outliers.)
I’ll hazard a prediction: I think that military spending in FY 2012 will be slightly less than President Obama initially requested, but still not less than will be spent in FY 2011 (in other words, they’re still only faking cuts).
To get real cuts, Washington is going to have to clear some things off the military's plate. If we want a military that costs less, we have to ask it to do less. And I don't see a lot of enthusiasm for that—yet. Starting a new war in Libya (and signaling that similar missions are in the military’s future) doesn't help.
Perhaps the key will be to connect two seemingly disconnected dots: our subsidizing defense spending for other rich countries has allowed them to divert money to dubious social spending and a too-large public sector with too-generous pay and benefits. I don't know how Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) can go to their constituents and say they’re cutting popular programs here in the United States, and holding the line on the DoD’s budget, so that our European and East Asian allies can fend off cuts in their pensions and avoid taking responsibility for their own security.