Don't Be Surprised When the GOP Cuts Defense Spending.


This story from Politico is typical of tales about the GOP and defense spending. That is, it asserts that:

The GOP is built on two core tenets — small government and big defense spending — and for decades, the two ideas co-existed peacefully. Republicans wanted to cut the federal budget — everywhere except the Pentagon. No more.

That sort of take confuses rhetoric and reality in two equal and opposite ways. First it assumes that the Republican Party, especially when it holds the White House, actually works to cut spending. That's just not true.

As Reason columnist and Mercatus Center policy analyst Veronique de Rugy documented last fall, when you look at inflation-adjusted per-capita outlays going back to Jimmy Carter, it turns out that a Republican in the White House means spending more, not less, money. Note especially what happened under George W. Bush, who had a GOP Congress until 2007. Spending cranked up under him across the board, only slowing briefly when the Democrats took the House and the Senate late in his second term. At the very end of his second term, Bush rammed through TARP and various other massive outlays that were then bumped even higher by Barack Obama's stimulus spending. Bush increased defense spending by about 70 percent, but he also increased Medicare and Medicaid by 75 percent, and non-defense discretionary spending by 55 percent. Look it up and be appalled.

There's a pattern that I recently christened "the Ziggurat of Doom": Spending ratchets up under Republican presidents and then the gains are consolidated by Democratic leaders. Real spending under Carter and Clinton was basically flat. After an initial giant leap at the start of Obama's tenure (a leap up that included some of the last-minute Bush hikes), spending has (so far) been basically flat. To be sure, the federal government's inability to produce a budget for going-on-four-years has surely stymied Obama's repeatedly stated desire to increase annual spending by $2 trillion over the next decade. The cheapskate Republicans—judging from Rep. Paul Ryan's plan—only want to increase it by $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Because well, you know, trillion-dollar deficits really shouldn't mean you have to hold spending down at all. But the failure to pass a budget can't be laid at the Republicans' feet. Most of the blame rests with the Democratically controlled Senate, which hasn't produced a budget proposal (as required by law) for years.

If Politico simply confuses rhetoric for reality when it comes to the GOP's dedication to "small government," it also fails to check the record on how the Gingrich Congress balanced the budget back in the 1990s. It certainly didn't do it by actually increasing defense spending, that's for sure. Defense cuts—what was called the "peace dividend" back in the 1990s—were central to controlling spending during the Clinton presidency. The cuts began under George H.W. Bush and continued throughout the Cllinton years, even after the GOP had gained control of both houses of Congress. Clinton spent most of his first two years in power trying to push through a national health-care plan. Maybe that preoccupied him and the GOP so much they forgot how to spend money on other stuff. In terms of inflation-adjusted spending on national defense, the U.S. was spending about 8 percent less in 2001 than it had spent in 1994 (go to Table 8.8 on page 178). Over the same period, total federal spending increased by about 10 percent. The point is that a GOP Congress readily signed off on reductions in defense spending under Clinton.

One of the basic problems with today's political discourse is that each of the major parties is pretending to be that which it is not. As the Politico story shows, the parties are helped along in this delusional masquerade by the media. The Republicans wrap themselves in the mantle of government cutters who only make an exception for robust national defense (and recall that throughout the 1990s, they also channeled their inner Robert Tafts, routinely questioning President Bill Clinton's promiscuous use of American forces every bit as much as his promiscuous use of interns). The Democrats are supposedly ready to cut spending on guns so they can jack up spending on social programs and other giveaways. Neither of these things is remotely true, it turns out, with the result that each party is talking past the other and, more importantly, the American people.

Defense spending—currently about 20 percent of the federal budget—is going to be cut for various reasons. First and foremost, it's a huge pot of money that is appropriated every year, so it's more vulnerable than the other big-ticket entitlement items such as Medicare and Medicaid. Second, it has risen dramatically over the past dozen years and the wars that have goosed its levels are coming to an unlamented end. (Let's leave aside that the much-heralded Obama withdrawal from Iraq followed the exact timetable put forth by the Bush administration and over the loud attempts by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to keep us there longer. Or that Panetta, who has attacked any cuts to military spending via sequestration, has also called for prolonging our presence in Afghanistan.)

From a limited-government angle, it's always good news to read stories about spending cuts, but the biggest twist to the Politico story isn't that it's Republicans who are calling for defense cuts but that they are actually pushing for spending cuts in the first place. When you factor in all the costs related to defending the country, the U.S. spent something like $928 billion in 2012 (this includes a base defense budget $535 billion plus all other costs attributable to related functions). Defense spending, unlike, say, Medicare or Medicaid, shouldn't automatically scale up—that is, there in no inherent reason that defending 300 million Americans should cost more than defending 200 million. Which is one of the reasons why pollster Scott Rasmussen has found a large majority of Americans are ready and willing to cut defense spending. (Read more here).

If past if prologue, of course the GOP is ready and willing to cut defense spending. Indeed, the only question left is whether the Democrats will go along with it.