The Obama administration $640.5 billion fiscal year 2014 request for military spending authority is predictably unrealistic and excessive. Still, political circumstance continues to drag the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint.
That $640.5 billion includes $88.5 billion for war (a.k.a. overseas contingency operations), $526.6 for non-war spending in the Department of Defense, and another $25.4 billion spending outside DoD, mostly for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, which officially counts as “national defense” or budget function 050 spending.
Those spending levels ignore the budgetary cap set by law and the political reality it reflects. The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war “national defense” spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Were Congress to enact the president’s budget and leave the cap in place, that total would be sequestered equally across “defense” spending categories, including the war.
Even if Congress agrees to a grand bargain altering the caps, military spending will likely face additional cuts. Republican resistance to tax hikes and Democratic protection of entitlements mean that any deal they cut will likely again target discretionary spending, more than half of which goes to the military. Of course, Congress’ failure thus far to undo this year’s more onerous sequestration suggests that no deal is likely. An over-under on where the non-war Pentagon budget winds up for 2014 would be closer to $500 billion than $550 billion.
In a certain light, there is some sacrifice here. The non-war DoD request of $526.6 billion is just $1.2 billion more than last year’s request. Factoring in inflation, it’s about a 1.5 percent cut. This budget would bring the portion of GDP going to the military to 4 percent, versus. 4.3 percent this year, according to the administration. And as Russell Rumbaugh points out, DoD’s projected spending over ten years is down $114 billion from a year ago.
On the other hand, the request would be a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration (see page 10 here). Economic growth is the main reason that a declining portion of national wealth is going to the military. And the cuts scheduled over the decade would arrive mostly in its second half, when someone else is president, meaning that the cuts are basically imaginary.
Additionally, the “placeholder” request of $88.5 billion in Pentagon funds for war—the same as last year—is suspiciously high. The administration says they will revise the request once they determine force levels in Afghanistan. But the president already announced plans to halve total U.S. troops there from 68,000 to 34,000 by next February. Even with the increased cost from exiting, the total cost should be far lower. The Pentagon is likely continuing to use the war budget to dodge caps and fund personnel and other non-war functions. Meanwhile, the administration still claims to support a ten-year cap on war spending. As Charles Knight and I explain here, that is a feckless gesture at a good idea.
One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse. Another, more fundamental, reason is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus. Hopefully the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, shares some of that skepticism and will demonstrate it once he has time to guide the budget.
Given our safety, we should stop spending on the military as we did at the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon budget should comply with the spending cap by making choices among missions and goals, rather than clinging to existing alliances and ambitions. The cuts on offer are mostly efficiencies—they require doing the same things more cheaply. Some reforms of this kind, like the administration’s proposal to increase TRICARE fees and start another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, can save big bucks, though Congress will probably ignore them. Bigger cuts require larger choices. If, for example, we shed allies and the pretension that stability everywhere depends on our military presence, far deeper cuts to each service, especially the ground forces, are possible. We could cut a leg or two of the nuclear delivery-vehicle triad without sacrificing deterrence. One virtue of austerity is to encourage these sorts of overdue choices.