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When it comes to discretionary spending, there are obvious cuts that any serious spending audit would demand. The Department of Education, created in 1980 under Jimmy Carter, has demonstrably failed to improve education results. Ronald Reagan talked about abolishing the department but did nothing to dismantle it. Under George W. Bush, federal funding for education increased by 50 percent in real dollars without anything to show for it other than higher debt levels. The department should be dumped altogether, along with farm subsidies and virtually all spending by the energy and commerce departments.
Then there is military spending, which at around $700 billion for fiscal year 2010 is one of the largest items in the federal budget. Pentagon spending has become sacrosanct among many conservatives who otherwise attack the government as incompetent and spendthrift. In an October 2010 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, and Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol fretted that “our active-duty military is two-thirds its size in the 1980s,” as if the ideal number of troops was set in stone during the last decade of the Cold War. Noting that growth in mandatory spending has outpaced spending on the Pentagon, the authors argued that we should opt for guns rather than butter, writing: “Congress can make a difference…by insisting that the Obama administration endorse responsible defense budgets instead of throwing our money down the well of entitlement expansion.”
Brooks, Kristol, and Feulner are right to imply that tradeoffs exist in the budget, but they are wrong about how to address them. The question isn’t whether entitlements or military spending should be cut. It’s how much both can and should be cut. If the United States cannot afford an open-ended commitment to retirees regardless of need and income, it certainly cannot afford an open-ended commitment to Pentagon budgets hashed out when the Soviet Union controlled half of Europe.
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Last July, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) wrote a letter signed by 55 other legislators that called for a thorough reappraisal of military spending, noting that the defense budget accounts for 56 percent of all discretionary spending. Within the next few years, defense spending will rise to almost $900 billion annually before tapering down again. Obama’s debt commission lays out $100 billion in military cuts, a number that could easily be increased and even doubled through steps such as scrapping obsolete weapon programs and shifting the military to the lighter, smaller strategic model envisioned by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before 9/11. While silent on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the commission suggests that basic war spending be outlined by the president each year, a procedure very much at odds with the way George W. Bush used emergency supplemental spending bills to pay for conflicts that had been underway for years.
Specific cuts can and should be debated, as the political class belatedly grapples with a crisis of its own making. But one idea that should be rejected early on is the notion that revenue shortfalls got us into this mess and that new taxes are needed to pull the country out of it. As calls for revenue increases come fast and furious, keep the number 19 in mind. Until federal spending is brought down to 19 percent of the economy or less—something that was accomplished with little trouble for the years 1997 through 2002, not to mention most of the period between 1950 and 1970—no serious solution will be possible.
Nick Gillespie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv. Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy (email@example.com) is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.