No, the GOP isn’t wisening up on military spending

Jason Pye has already written about this story in POLITICO about Republicans thinking of cutting military spending (thanks for ninja-ing me, boss), but I have my own thoughts about what they’re reporting on, and I’m deeply skeptical anything will change:

On a hot July night six months ago, 89 House Republicans joined more dovish Democrats to do the unusual for Washington: cut $1.1 billion from the GOP’s proposed budget for defense in 2013.

Then came Hurricane Sandy and the New Year’s Day tax bill, and as many as 157 House Republicans voted Jan. 15 to endorse a much bigger cut, taking nearly $10 billion from the Pentagon to help pay for disaster aid. It was a huge swing by any measure and one followed this week by a Monday night Senate vote in which the overwhelming majority of Republicans endorsed their own across-the-board defense cut worth tens of billions of dollars over the next nine years.

Welcome to the new “dare you, double dare you” school of deficit politics — just a taste of what’s to come March 1 when much deeper spending cuts take effect under the sequester mechanism dictated by the 2011 debt accords.

House Republicans seem determined to let the cuts take effect if only as payback to President Barack Obama for humiliating them over taxes. The White House and Senate Democrats are so far feigning indifference. And while “the boys” play tough, much could depend on two women thrust into Senate committee chairmanships this year: Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on Appropriations and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the Budget panel.

Mikulski’s role lies more in the gritty short term. “If they are going to cut, learn math and how to read the bills. Math is good. I like math,” Mikulski bluntly told her colleagues this week. And she is planning her own tutorial Feb. 14 with a major Appropriations hearing on the sequester’s impact.

I don’t know about you, but quite frankly, in that last line, Mikulski sounds like an idiot who should have spent a little less effort in math and a little more effort in English class…though I doubt she got high marks for either. (I mean, she is a politician.)

Something to note before I continue: you’ll notice that the Politico article talks about “defense spending,” whereas I use the terminology “military spending.” This is not an accident; this is very deliberate. I picked it up as an intern at the Cato Institute years ago, and it accurately reflects the fact that money spent on the military is not going for national defense. It’s going for national offense, it’s going to invade other nations and attack other countries. At this stage in the game, it has nothing to do with defense. Hence, why I refuse to call it “defense spending.”

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, can I say for once I’m applauding what appears to be partisanship on Capitol Hill. Who cares if this is a little “payback” to President Obama? It’s good for the nation, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the American people, and it’s the right thing to do, period. When you’re a politician and you’re doing the right thing, it’s not “political payback,” it’s just the right thing to do. Period. Full stop. There is no need—nor no reason or justification—to describe it as anything else.

But let’s note some more numbers from the story. It already mentioned that Republicans joined forces with Democrats to first cut $1.1 billion from military spending, then another $10 billion, for a total of $11.1 billion. If you don’t already know, in fiscal year 2012 the Defense Department’s budget was $688 billion, meaning those “cuts” were 1.6% of the entire military budget. What that means is that they are entirely insignificant in the longer run. Oh, and that “across-the-board defense cut worth tens of billions of dollars over the next nine years”? Yeah, that’s not an actual cut, but merely a “decrease in the rate of spending increases.” What it means is that spending will be higher in nine years, it just won’t be as high as some lobbyists would want. So that’s a wash.


Defense will again be on the block, faced with an estimated 7.3 percent reduction, which is really double that given the Pentagon is almost halfway through the fiscal year. Domestic programs face a 5.1 percent cut under the same rules. And for all the talk of immigration reform this week, thousands of Border Patrol agents could face furloughs or outright job losses.

Boo hoo. I’m skeptical if we can double that 7.3%, but even if we did, 14.6% is stll only a start. Right now, we spend 41% of the entire world military spending, and outspend the next 12 countries (going by the $688 billion number I cited earlier) combined. We spend more than China, Russia, Britain, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, and Australia combined. A 14.6% cut is merely a drop in the bucket. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson proposed a 43% cut, which is more like it.

In the end, though, I am still skeptical the GOP has finally got it’s head around the issue, particularly because of fearmongering like this:

In their letter to the Appropriations leadership, the Joint Chiefs don’t mince words.

“Should this looming readiness crisis be left unaddressed, we will have to ground aircraft, return ships to port, and stop driving combat vehicles in training,” the chiefs wrote. “Training will be reduced by almost half of what we were planning just three months ago. We are now planning for the potential to furlough up to nearly 800,000 defense civilians.”

As a practical matter, that number will most likely be less than 800,000. But there are real discussions of 22 furlough days over the remainder of the fiscal year for hundreds of thousands of workers. And from the Border Patrol to airport security and the Federal Aviation Administration, the same threat of furloughs is real.

“Wait until they start furloughing air traffic controllers. You think the airlines are going to like that?” Mikulski said. “The people who work for the federal government keep our economy going. … I appreciate what the Joint Chiefs have said and they have serious issues. But at the same time, so do the domestic agencies.”

Guess what, fellas—has it ever occurred to you that maybe this isn’t what the government should be doing? Maybe we have way too many combat aircraft. Maybe we have way too many ships. Maybe we have way too many combat vehicles, and way too many “defense civilians”. Maybe we have too many Border Patrol agents, too many airport security officers, and too many air traffic controllers—and you know what, if the airlines want air traffic controllers, maybe they can hire some? You know, decrease unemployment and all that. I wonder if that thought ever crossed Mikulski’s mind, or the minds of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of course they haven’t. The very idea that the federal government is doing too much, for some insane reason, does not occur to them. That’s why I’m skeptical the GOP will come around on this. They haven’t had it hit them yet, that they cannot keep this up, and they cannot keep spending. Only until we hear people start seriously asking “What is the proper role of the federal government?” and “Do we need to be doing all this?” will we finally get somewhere.

Until then, while we’re fighting over 1.6% cuts and whining about grounding aircraft that should never have been in the air to begin with…

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