Here's a real test to see if House Republicans are serious about making any cuts in government spending.
As you'll recall, with a few notable exceptions such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), it's tough to find GOP members who really stick to their guns, especially when spending is in any way related to the military spending rather than, say, food stamps, funding for the arts, or foreign aid.
The Pentagon says that even though wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are effectively over, well, they still need money as if we're still at war. The Defense budget is one of the most inscrutable documents ever written (it puts Melville's The Confidence Man to shame in this regard). On top of a "base budget," there is also money for "overseas contingency operations" (OCO), which is where most of the money to fund wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came from. OCO funds also cover some other things such as disaster relief and evacuation efforts. You would expect OCO to be cut massively as troops come home. But you would be wrong.
The enacted base budget for fiscal 2014 was $496 billion, and DOD received $85 billion for OCO.
But the military has also been using OCO to train troops, refurbish and modernize its equipment, maintain bases and force presence outside of Afghanistan, and do other activities not directly related to the war effort. Pentagon leaders want that extra money to continue flowing in an era when Congress has put caps on the base budget. A final OCO request has not yet been made for fiscal 2015, but in budget documents, DOD listed $79 billion as a "placeholders" figure.
"Any transition from OCO to base at the current base topline or, worse, under sequester laws, would drive all of our bases down, and our limited budget will pressurize our already difficult decisions as we work to balance our force structure, modernization and readiness. Without additional supplemental funding, I'm concerned that all three of these areas will suffer," Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources, told members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness on Thursday.
The OCO budget is not subject to budget caps imposed by past law and thus exists as what one analyst calls "an uncapped funding stream that exists for DOD." You can understand why the military wants to keep the spigot open. And here's a preview of how Republicans, apart from the odd duck such as Amash, are likely to respond. Take it away, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.):
"Some would characterize OCO as unnecessary after 2014. However, the fact of the matter is that the rapidly broadening scope of challenges now facing our military has led the Department to become increasingly dependent on OCO to support enduring activities — activities beyond Afghanistan's borders that must continue after combat operations have ended. OCO funds a multitude of enduring high-priority activities like building partner capacity, providing humanitarian assistance, conducting training exercises, and performing intelligence functions," he said. "Until we are able to [move those funds to the base budget], we have a responsibility to provide the necessary OCO resources to allow our troops to do the job we have asked them to do."
Some would characterize it? No, just people who are interested in having an actual conversation about how much money the government spends, including how much it spends on defense, which is likely to receive lesser scrutiny precisely because it is universally accepted as a core government function. How else do you explain massive, Titanic-sized boondoggles such as the F-35 jet program, a $1.5 trillion exercise in flushing tax money down the toilet.
Two things to consider:
1. From a Keynesian perspetive, defense spending is often thought of as the ultimate government multiplier. How many of us were taught in undergrad econ that it was spending on World War II that finally got us out of the Great Depression? That's simply not true. Recent research by Harvard's Robert Barro and Mercatus Center economist and Reason columnist Veronique de Rugy shows that defense spending actually finds that "a dollar increase in federal defense spending results in a less-than-a-dollar increase in GDP when the spending increase is deficit-financed." The idea that maintaining defense spending is a way of propping up our current economy is simply wrong and that fact should be front and center as the Defense Department works a pliant House GOP for more and more money.
2. Defense spending is one of the few items in the budget that can and has been cut in the past. Massive drops in spending took place after World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the end of the Cold War.