The US Is Running the Largest Deficit Ever — We Can’t Keep the Pentagon Off the Table
Andrew Lautz and Jonathan Bydlak / Politico
(July 16, 2020) — In just the past few months, Congress has appropriated nearly $3 trillion dollars to fight the economic and public health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is on top of a terrible budget deal last year that blew through spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. With little end in sight to the pandemic and its associated recession, Congress is likely to spend even more in the months to come.
With resources more limited than ever, areas of the budget that were off-limits for years should now be more closely scrutinized. At the top of that list should be the single largest part of the federal discretionary budget, an entire category of spending that has long been off the table: the Pentagon.
For years, Congress overinvested in the Pentagon in an attempt to prevent potential attacks on our shores, while failing to prepare for other existential risks that would threaten our prosperity and way of life. Now, Congress appears ready to authorize three-quarters of a trillion dollars for defense spending alone in the upcoming fiscal year.
Nearly one of every 10 of those dollars will go to an Overseas Contingency Operations account that lawmakers in both parties acknowledge is a slush fund. This is on top of a base budget that will almost certainly be higher than ever.
The organizations we represent care deeply about fiscal responsibility and limited government, but too often fiscal conservatives within Congress ignore the waste and unchecked growth of the Pentagon. The truth is that we are now in an unprecedented crisis, one that has resulted in huge outlays to combat a global pandemic and keep a faltering economy from collapse. At a time of enormous deficits and record debt, this can no longer be acceptable.
Republicans in Congress need to start tackling the Pentagon budget just as boldly as they do other areas of discretionary spending. Doing so would put our nation on a better fiscal path and create opportunities for unlikely political alliances.
Conservative figures like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) for years advocated restraint at the Pentagon; two of the most recent efforts to restrain the Pentagon’s budget in the coming year come from staunchly progressive members of Congress: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
Sanders has introduced an amendment to cut the defense budget by 10 percent and to reinvest those funds “in cities and towns that we’ve neglected and abandoned for far too long.” Lee, for her part, introduced a resolutionidentifying nearly $350 billion in cuts for this fiscal year, and another amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), would reduce the Pentagon budget by 14 percent.
Our organizations rarely agree with Sanders or Lee, and these particular legislative efforts fall short in a number of ways. For example, we would prefer that Sanders’ amendment invest the vast majority of his proposed cut into reducing the historic deficits projected for 2020 and 2021.
Lee’s resolution points out some low-hanging fruit for lawmakers looking to trim the Pentagon budget, but goes too far for us by aiming to slash the Pentagon by almost half in just one year.
However, these proposals are not without merit, and there should be substantial room for compromise. Sanders and Lee are taking defense budget policy in the right direction, raising important questions and aiming for bold and significant changes at a time when doing so couldn’t be more critical.
There is no shortage of opportunities to reform and reduce the size of the Pentagon, the world’s largest bureaucracy, in a way that is in line with conservative principles and goals. The Guide for a Strong America is one resource for conservatives willing to take on the fight. Indeed, this process is exactly how we should be examining the hundreds of billions of dollars in nondefense discretionary spending, too — focusing on those items that are working and taking a scalpel to those that aren’t.
A robust debate is already happening on the right. In addition to our organizations, conservative groups including FreedomWorks, Concerned Veterans for America and Americans for Tax Reform have voiced support for putting Pentagon spending cuts on the table, while the Charles Koch Institute and Defense Priorities have made compelling cases for strategic restraint.
There are some current Republican and bipartisan amendments that would advance the cause by boosting Defense Department audit efforts and reining in off-book accounts. And Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) have also taken some laudable steps to improve DoD’s inconsistent audit efforts.
Congress also needs another 10 years of discretionary budget caps, and even stronger enforcement to limit cheating on those caps (as happened in the past). Many Democrats will have to sacrifice unchecked growth in nondefense spending, and defense hawks in both parties will have to sacrifice unchecked growth for Pentagon priorities that aren’t making us any safer.
But in a post-coronavirus world, all expenditures can and must be on the table. Congress is already changing its old ways of doing business before our eyes, with things like virtual committee meetings and even remote voting. It’s long past time to reconsider old habits when it comes to one of our nation’s most bloated federal departments.
Andrew Lautz is a policy and government affairs manager with the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit dedicated to lower and fairer taxes at all levels of government. Jonathan Bydlak is director of the R Street Institute’s Fiscal and Budget Policy Project, and the creator of SpendingTracker.org.
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