Don't Let Defense Wreck the Budget
Now that President Donald Trump is in office, the temptation to pass legislation to either raise or remove the spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) is enormous, and Senator John McCain recently released a proposal that would do just that.
McCain’s proposal comes in response to claims that the American military has been neutered by the Obama administration’s inattention to proper funding. These claims have been a central part of the narrative employed not only by Trump during his campaign but also by rank-and-file legislators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a renewal of American strength and vitality.
The premise that underlies this crusade is deeply flawed. American military spending is already sizeable, and though the military’s footprint has declined, it remains strong. Repealing the BCA would unnecessarily boost military spending while leaving less funding available for other increasingly costly areas of the budget like healthcare, education, and infrastructure spending.
In 2011, a deeply divided Congress, in an effort to produce a legislative mechanism so grim that both parties would have no choice but to engage in bipartisan deficit reduction, passed the BCA. The bill was designed to trim a projected $984 billion from the budget over the next decade.
In 2013, the BCA sheared $55 billion from defense spending via “sequestration,” meaning that the cuts came proportionally from each program (except military personnel). Then the BCA capped annual defense and nondefense discretionary spending through 2021. Spending that exceeds these caps, except for spending on overseas contingency operations, triggers a similar sequestration. However, unable to meet their commitments, Congressional legislators have repeatedly raised these caps and supplemented defense spending using war funds.
While it is true that military spending decreased by about 15 percent between 2011 and 2015, this recent decline comes after overall spending, including spending by the VA, DoD, and DHS, rose by about “60 percent, or three times the inflation rate” in the six-year period following 2004 according to Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute. Also, in real terms, the U.S. is lavishing more on its military than the reported defense expenditures of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, and France combined. Moreover, even if these countries’ levels of spending were underreported by 10 to 15 percent, the U.S. would still be outspending the next three largest global powers.
Moreover, while the size of the military regarding its physical footprint is going down, it is still larger than any other. The American military has 800 bases worldwide, which is more than any other nation or empire now and throughout history. Also, according to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the strength of the American military surpasses that of all other countries based on factors including its quantity of troops, tanks, and aircraft.
On that note, legislators’ claim that the military is experiencing a perilous “readiness crisis” are often exaggerated or confused. “Readiness” is a vague term that conveys urgency without making the subject of such concern apparent. Whether the U.S. is ready to maintain its expected military commitments abroad is a different question than whether it is ready to hold its ground in a war against China and Russia. These and other measures of readiness are often conflated (even by the Pentagon) and give legislators, and the public, the incorrect impression that only higher levels of military spending can save the U.S. from certain doom.
David Petraeus and Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon, neither of whom are particularly fond of the BCA, have argued in the Wall Street Journal that “the United States has the best military in the world today, by far.” The two continue, “U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses, and in many areas—from naval warfare to precision-strike capabilities, to airpower, to intelligence and reconnaissance, to special operations—they play in a totally different league from the militaries of other countries.”
However, it is important to note that there are certain areas of expenditure that do seem warranted. For example, Marine aviators receive inadequate training due to a lack of funding, which many blame on the BCA. Yet there are other avenues to reduce military spending including cutting back on foreign interventions and Tricare costs.
During his campaign, Trump reiterated that only four other NATO members out of 28 meet the alliance’s target of spending at least two percent of their GDP on defense. He also cautioned that under his administration, the U.S. might only come to the aid of those countries that had “fulfilled their obligations.” Now that President Trump is in office, it is possible that the U.S. will find that some of the burden mitigated by European countries mindful of an American President who will be less forgiving when standards go unmet.
Defense spending is too important an issue to be used as a prop in the narrative of Republican triumph. The federal government already spends far more than it receives and legislators have a responsibility to spend only as much as they need to. The spending caps put in place by the BCA, and the punitive nature of the sequestering that follows if they are exceeded, are well-designed measures that encourage responsible spending. The incoming administration should not let rhetoric get in the way of duty.