The GOP's Budgetary Shenanigans Discourage Necessary Pentagon Reform

The Department of Defense will continue to avoid hard choices if the war hawks prevail and gut spending caps.


The civil war being fought within the Republican Party over Pentagon spending came to a head this week, as the House Budget Committee proposed a spending level technically in line with Budget Control Act (BCA) limits, but that actually skirts those caps by loading additional monies into the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account.

Pentagon spending boosters are likely to claim victory. It is actually a defeat for fiscal responsibility and strategic good sense. Busting the budget caps virtually ensures that necessary reforms within the Pentagon will be kicked down the road, and likewise discourages a serious reconsideration of the military's roles and missions. And the committee's shenanigans clearly defy the spirit of the BCA, which is rightly credited with slowing the growth of government.

U.S. military spending—the Pentagon's base budget, excluding the cost of our recent wars—remains near historic highs. Under the bipartisan BCA caps passed in 2011, U.S. taxpayers will still spend more on the military (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in each of the next five years than we spent, on average, during the Cold War.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the respective chairs of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, think we're spending too little. In a widely cited op ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, they called on Republicans to support a $577 billion defense budget, or $78 billion more than the BCA limits. Tom Cotton faulted McCain and Thornberry for being too stingy. The nation's survival, Arkansas's freshman senator suggested in his first floor speech, would be dangerously imperiled if we didn't spend at least $611 billion next year, plus whatever extra was needed to fight the nation's wars.

McCain, Thornberry, and Cotton want much more military spending because they believe the world is too dangerous, and the U.S. military is too small to deal with the dangers. But today's threats are relatively modest and manageable compared with our recent past. And while the U.S. military is smaller than in 2010, or 1990, it is not necessarily too small.

Consider the question just in terms of the number of men and women serving on active duty. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, active duty personnel peaked at 3.6 million. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, the number of active duty personnel reached 3.5 million. The high point in the post-Cold War era came in 2010, when active duty personnel peaked at 1.5 million, less than half the total in uniform at the time of those earlier wars. And yet total Pentagon spending in 2010—again, in inflation-adjusted dollars—was 35 percent higher than in 1952, and 32 percent higher than in 1968.

Halifax International Security Forum/Flickr

A similar story could be told with respect to ships at sea, or planes in the air.

The platforms we are buying today are more costly than those fielded a generation ago. We appear to be spending more, and getting less. But appearances can be deceiving.

The Cold War military was comprised primarily of conscripts obligated by law to serve, often against their will. They were poorly paid and they received minimal training. They executed the missions they were given, but they were, by and large, temporary soldiers, anxious to return to their lives when their obligated term of service was up.

Today's military consists of hundreds of thousands of dedicated professionals who have chosen to serve in the military, often for a career. We are more willing to invest heavily in their training, confident that those investments will pay dividends over the long term. Their pay and benefits are commensurate with a professional force and attract the very best talent.

So, yes, we spend a lot. But it isn't necessarily true that we are getting less for what we spend, and it isn't obvious that a Pentagon budget averaging more than a half a trillion dollars a year is woefully insufficient to defend this country, and our vital interests.

Meanwhile, no one disputes that there is waste in the Pentagon's budget. The Pentagon has too much overhead, too many people, and too many underutilized bases and other facilities. The military's compensation system is antiquated and desperately in need of reform. The Pentagon's program for acquiring new weapons is similarly outdated and inflexible. McCain and Thornberry, even as they call on the taxpayers to increase military spending by 15 percent, freely admit that not every dollar that the Pentagon spends today is spent wisely. "Of course there is waste in the Pentagon," they write, "and efforts to eliminate it must continue. But sequestration does not target Pentagon spending. It cuts spending recklessly."

What they do not say, however, is that sequestration's "goofy meat axe" (Leon Panetta's evocative phrase) only falls if Pentagon leaders refuse to abide by the BCA spending caps. If they submitted a budget that adhered to those limits, or, more accurately, if Congressional appropriators compelled them to do so, then the cuts could be targeted.

Our government—including both DoD and the Congress—has chosen to ignore a package of cost-saving reforms that a diverse coalition of defense experts endorsed nearly two years ago. And they will continue to avoid those hard choices if the war hawks prevail and gut the BCA spending caps.

NEXT: Matt Welch: 'Every single GOP strategist under the age of 40' Might Be Unacceptably Libertarian

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  2. Tom Cotton faulted McCain and Thornberry for being too stingy. The nation’s survival, Arkansas’s freshman senator suggested in his first floor speech, would be dangerously imperiled if we didn’t spend at least $611 billion next year, plus whatever extra was needed to fight the nation’s wars.

    No, Senator, you’re the stingy one. We should spend at least a trillion dollars on defense. ‘Cause every extra dollar spent means an extra dollar of national safety. It’s simple math, really.

    1. I’m just a simple caveman. I fell on some ice, and was frozen until your scientists thawed me out. Your modern fire sticks scare me. I may not know much, but I do know this. The DOD is entitled to no less than $611 billion next fiscal year.

    2. I heard a conversation about defense spending on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. It was amazingly frustrating, because they were just on and on about how we need to lift the budgetary limits so we can spend more on defense. It could’ve been two Democrats talking about one of their vote-buying spendathons.

      Accepting for the moment that we have the World Cop status quo to maintain, we still could do so by spending less money less stupidly. It’s not like DoD isn’t famously ridiculous with expenditures.

      1. It’s not really the DoD. The big expenditures are in the acquisition process, which have very little DoD influence.

        Outside of acquisitions, the DoD will find a way to do everything it needs to do by spending 100% of however much you give it.

        1. The DOD doesn’t have control over departmental acquisitions? Who does, the military? I would think it was the other way around.

          1. It’s who appoints the DoD members, and then decides to fund the programs they request.

      2. Did Hugh Hewitt claim Democrats like to spend too much on that show, too? Because that would have been awesome.

    3. Sounds like the argument for education spending – – “Give us more money and grades will go up!” They will never learn.

  3. “Tom Cotton faulted McCain and Thornberry for being too stingy.”

    Wait, what? Is that possible without breaking down and laughing? Seriously, accusing McCain of being too stingy to the DoD?!

    1. Cotton has to be one of the worst freshmen senators ever elected. I despise him.

      1. “I know how to make my mark…I will out-hawk John F’ing McCain!”

        1. And he’s a Harvard law grad, right? What is it about Harvard producing some of the biggest scoundrels in this country?

          1. He’s a Harvard grad who wrote a letter to reporters when he was in Iraq saying he hoped they all got arrested and thrown in jail for sedition.

            He’s a really great guy, that Tom Cotton. Thank God the Republicans showed their true love of liberty by fawning all over that guy.

            Also, I don’t even think Cotton qualifies as a neo-con. He almost seems too crazy to be a neo-con. It’s like he’s just a military worshiper that wants to watch things go boom.

  4. “Of course there is waste in the Pentagon,” they write, “and efforts to eliminate it must continue. But sequestration does not target Pentagon spending. It cuts spending recklessly.”

    Yeah, it is not like the DoD can prioritize or reform what it spends. #$%&ing; idiots.

    1. That’s what I was talking about above. They act like the only answer is taking the shackles off the budget–what few there are–and spending more. We spend insane amounts of money on defense right now, and this idea that we can’t stop wasting money by the hundred billion or, for that matter, stop giving away money to buy votes, is about as bad as the left giving away the house and all future houses for their vote-buying schemes of choice.

  5. The next person that says “shenanigans” is going to get pistol whipped.

  6. These types of cuts are going to do away with ice and butter sculptures and high priced call girls – both essential to our defense.

    1. And $500 toilet seats and $150 hammers

  7. The US is responsible for 455 of the global defense outlays. We spend more on defense than the next 14 nations behind us COMBINED (Russia, China, France, England, etc…). And they want MORE??? Call your self what you want, but please don’t claim to be Conservative.

  8. Butter sculptures + high priced call girls = a combo we can’t do w/o

    1. Add yachts and luxury cars to the mix…..and the cost for the multiple wives and affairs many of these defense contractors have and need….and you have a clear indication of why we can’t cut.

      I lived in Defense Contractor Central (S. Jersey – Lockheed was biggest employers) and some of my neighbors bragged about buying Hatteras Yachts (55 feet in this case) with one year’s bonus. Of course, they already owned the million dollar beach house and the fancy cars.

      LM spends vast sums just buying all the pols (most GOP’ers, in this case). They will give any pol who tows their line a job for life – even those without skills! Of course, that’s why most pols are pols…because they have no skills!

      And so we have the same drumbeat – that of the authoritarian Right which cannot rule without scaring the people. They want to cut medical care for grandma and grandpa and give it all toward WWIII.

      When asked why they come up with these “dream” budgets which have no chance of passing, they spout the foundation of right wing thinking – that is “if only”. Here is a quote from yesterday from the GOP Congress:
      “It’s a statement of if we were king or queen for a day, this is what we would propose”

      They sorta cream their pants thinking about being King….

      1. Indeed sir. And here is a quote from another Conservative:

        “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” – – James Madison

        1. Sounds like a Pinko Leftist Flower Power type….

      2. Translation: They stole the money that I was planning to steal!!

      3. It’s “tows the lion” here.

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