Tag: Budget Control Act

Defense Spending Hasn’t Been Cut by $600 Billion

Beltway politicians like to pretend that smaller spending increases amount to spending “cuts.” As Dan Mitchell has pointed out numerous times (see here for one example), that’s baseline budgeting baloney. Now that the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps are in place, politicians are making an even more ridiculous claim: the so-called “cuts” have already occurred.

The caps apply to spending over ten fiscal years – the last year being 2021. We are obviously not in the year 2021, so it’s impossible for the so-called “cuts” to have already been implemented. Yet here are two examples from a recent Politico article where politicians suggest that to be the case:

“There are people that think we need to cut more,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) acknowledged in an interview. McKeon said he’s been pushing back against budget hawks in the GOP conference by pointing to the nearly $600 billion in spending cuts that the Pentagon has already absorbed in recent years — and that’s before sequestration would even begin.

“I think there’s spending that can be taken out of all departments,” said freshman Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “And I’ve talked to people from the Pentagon. There’s just areas that, yeah, we can pull back a little more, even though they did their $470 billion already. They said it hurt, but we possibly could.”

I’ll cut Rep. Yoho a little slack because the article indicates that he’s open to cutting defense. Rep. McKeon, on the other hand, deserves no such leniency. (Why McKeon said $600 billion and Yoho $470 billion I have no idea.)

The following chart illustrates why it is ridiculous to act as if smaller future increases in projected spending amount to realized spending cuts. The chart shows the Congressional Budget Office’s August 2001 baseline estimate of defense spending from 2002 to 2011 versus the actual outlays:

The combined difference turned out to be $1.8 trillion.

But, you might respond, those estimates were published a month before the attack on September 11th, 2001, so of course they turned out to be way off!

And that’s my point. With the exception of Keynesian economists, no one can predict the future. All it will take is another major terrorist attack or another war and it’s adios spending caps. I would argue that such unfortunate scenarios are a distinct possibility given the Beltway crowd’s love for empire, but I’ll leave that topic to Cato’s foreign policy experts.

Boehner’s Bogus Debt Ceiling Line in the Sand

Speaker Boehner says that the House will not pass another increase in the debt ceiling unless the White House and congressional Democrats agree to cut spending by an equal or greater amount. That’s the same line in the sand that Boehner drew during the previous debt ceiling showdown in 2011.             

As I noted in a recent piece, the 2011 agreement to increase the debt ceiling accomplished no such thing: 

The deal that Republicans ultimately agreed to — The Budget Control Act of 2011 — promised to reduce the growth in spending over the next ten years by $917 billion. In exchange, the president got to increase the debt ceiling by $900 billion. According to the House Republican leadership, the trade was a victory because the debt increase was smaller than the spending cuts. Of course, that’s nonsense. Not only were there no real spending cuts, the federal debt has proceeded to jump another $1.8 trillion since the president signed the bill less than a year and a half ago. 

The other part of the deal hasn’t turned out any better. The BCA created a “Super Committee”, tasked with achieving $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. When the committee inevitably failed, the agreement stipulated that the deficit reduction instead be achieved through a combination of automatic cuts to defense and non-defense spending (“sequestration”). Republicans and Democrats promptly made it clear that they would figure out a way to avoid the spending cuts. 

The sequestration spending cuts that Republicans and Democrats want to avoid allowed the president to raise the debt ceiling by another $1.2 trillion. In sum, the federal debt will have gone up $2.1 trillion in exchange for no spending cuts in the present and a promise to increase spending at a lower rate over the next ten years. 

There is zero chance that the Democrats would (or will) agree to a deal that seriously cut $1 for every $1 increase in the debt ceiling. Heck, I’d be shocked if a majority of Republicans would support it. The House Republican leadership obviously knows this—and it’s not like the GOP is prepared to “shoot the hostage” to begin with—so expect another debt ceiling increase with no substantive spending reforms.  

GOP Groups’ Ads on Sequestration, Defense Jobs Are Misleading

It is no surprise that the defense contractors want to protect their profits by getting taxpayers to pony up more money. Now they have secured the support of Crossroads GPS in a commercial against Senate candidate and former Virginia governor Tim Kaine. The Crossroads ad follows similar ones from Kaine’s challenger, George Allen, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. All three ads claim that spending cuts under sequestration will result in devastating job losses to the defense industry and Virginia; the Crossroads ad claims 520,000 jobs will be lost. But these estimates are wildly inflated and represent the short-term interests of the defense industry, not the American taxpayer.

In actuality, the cuts, if they occur, will be evenly divided between the Pentagon and the rest of the discretionary budget. They are a very modest share of total federal spending over the next decade, and the assertion that the cuts will lead to massive job losses have been thoroughly refuted here, here, and here. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that such cuts will have beneficial effects over the medium- to long-term, if the savings are returned to taxpayers, and not merely plowed into other federal spending.

All of these pro-GOP ads get the lost jobs number from a study commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association and authored by George Mason economist Stephen Fuller. Last Friday, the Cato Institute hosted a forum—which included Fuller—that considered the effects of military spending cuts on employment and the economy. We discussed the positive impact that cuts in Pentagon spending can have in the wider economy, and even in a state like Virginia that is more dependent than other states on federal spending. The Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moore argued we should just let sequestration happen (I agree). As the Washington Post reported, Economist Benjamin Zycher summed up the hypocrisy of conservatives claiming the defense budget produces jobs:

“Conservatives . . . are highly dubious about the purported [gross domestic product] and employment benefits of federal domestic spending, as illustrated by the meager effects of the Obama stimulus fiasco,” he said. “There’s no particular reason to believe that defense spending is different.”

I wish that organizations like Crossroads GPS were as committed to saving the taxpayers money as they are to electing Republicans. I’d also like it if they relied on objective facts, not statistics designed to protect the narrow interests of an industry that relies overwhelmingly on taxpayer dollars. We wouldn’t expect Republicans to accept the teachers unions’ claims about job losses from cuts in the Department of Education. Why, then, do they promote these phony numbers by the defense contractors?

On Thursday, Dan Mitchell and I will be discussing this issue—the effects of sequestration—on Capitol Hill. It is not too late to register, but space is limited, so act now.

An Update on Different Pentagon Spending Plans

On Monday, I posted a lengthy entry here comparing the different plans for military spending: the current Obama administration/OMB baseline, CBO’s latest estimate for sequestration, Mitt Romney’s plan to spend four percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s base budget, and Paul Ryan’s plan.

I should have taken a bit more time checking my numbers, because I ended up comparing apples to oranges (or 050 to 051, in budget-wonk-speak).

Thankfully, the ever-watchful Carl Conetta at the Project on Defense Alternatives spied the error, and set me straight. The gap between the Ryan plan and the current baseline (President Obama’s plan) is less than I had previously reported. The gap between the Ryan plan and the Romney plan is larger. The new numbers, and a revised chart are enclosed below.

I have had to make some inferences, so Governor Romney has some wiggle room. Romney’s surrogates have clarified other aspects of his plans for military spending, most recently here, but I still don’t know what is included when he says he will have a “goal of setting core defense spending—meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development—at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.” And no one seems to know how soon he intends to achieve that goal.

He could claim that the four percent goal should be applied to the entire “national defense” category (aka 050), which includes nuclear weapons spending within the Department of Energy, for example. This amounts to about a $25 billion difference annually. He could also include mandatory spending within the Pentagon’s budget, another $9 billion a year, on average.

The bottom line remains unchanged, however: Paul Ryan would spend more than President Obama on the military; Mitt Romney would spend much more. To his credit, Ryan has specified other spending cuts in domestic programs to ensure that his plan doesn’t add to the deficit or require higher taxes. Romney has not.

As before, I anxiously await additional clarification on how Romney plans to make up the difference.

Details, in constant 2012 dollars, for the period 2013-2022:

  • Obama/OMB Baseline (051, discretionary):  Total $5.163 trillion
  • Sequestration per CBO (051, discretionary): Total $4.659 trillion; $504 billion in savings
  • Ryan plan (051, discretionary): Total $5.321 trillion; $158 billion in additional spending
  • Romney 4 percent in four years: Total $7.015 trillion; $1.852 trillion in additional spending
  • Romney 4 percent in eight years: Total $6.868 trillion; average $687 billion/year; $1.704 trillion in additional spending

More Truth about Sequestration

Pentagon officials and other proponents of big military spending have three basic complaints about sequestration. That’s the process created by last summer’s Budget Control Act that would cut planned federal spending by about $1.1 trillion over the next nine years through budget caps and a $110 billion in across-the-board cuts in January 2013, with half the cuts coming from defense.

The first complaint is that the cuts would harm national security. The second is that the defense cuts would cause great job loss and economic damage. The third complaint concerns sequestration’s breadth. Because the hit coming in January would apply in equal proportion to every “program, project, and activity” in the defense budget, Pentagon officials claim it prevents prioritizing among programs and planning to limit its pain. That’s what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, always ready with a violent metaphor, calls the “goofy meat-axe approach.”

The video Cato posted yesterday concerns the first complaint, noting that the cut is not that large in historical terms and that we could safely spend far less if we defended fewer countries (a point Chris Preble, Justin Logan and I have often made elsewhere). In a paper Cato released today, Ben Zycher attacks the economic case against military spending cuts, including sequestration, showing that they generally increase economic productivity and employment in the long term.

In a piece published today by CNN.com’s Global Public Square, I concentrate on the third complaint. I point out several ways that current law gives the Pentagon to control where sequestration applies. The most important is a provision in the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which the BCA amends. It seems to allow the president to transfer funds at will beneath the defense cap, provided Congress passes an expedited joint resolution approving the shift. So the president, with Congress’s permission, can convert the 2013 sequester into a cap and prioritize among programs beneath it.

These options (and several others mentioned in Frank Oliveri’s excellent subscriber-only piece in CQ Weekly) undermine the claim that the Pentagon cannot plan for sequestration. The reason you hardly hear about them is that both the Obama administration and Republicans leaders are gambling that the threat of sequestration will serve their priorities (tax increases and entitlement cuts, respectively), so everyone in power wants it to sound as scary as possible.

To be clear, I do not think sequestration is good policy unless what I just mentioned occurred—the 2013 cut essentially becomes a spending cap. Even if that joint resolution process does not occur, the same end could be accomplished by amending the BCA.

The Truth about Sequestration

Cato has just released a new video, titled “The Truth about Sequestration,” that tells the real story about sequestration, the automatic budget cuts required by the Budget Control Act. Many in Congress claim to abhor their creation, including many of those who voted for it, yet the members and the president haven’t done much to prevent it. Perhaps they shouldn’t do anything and let the cuts happen. In our video, my colleagues Ben Friedman and Dan Mitchell join me in explaining that, whatever its shortcomings as legislation (and there are many, as discussed below) sequestration may be the only viable way to reduce the Pentagon’s budget.

However, there’s little likelihood that sequestration will significantly reduce the defense budget long term. That’s because sequestration cuts the defense budget only in the first year. Every year after that, defense spending will increase. Spending levels will indeed be lower than the Pentagon last year expected them to be. But only in Washington is that considered a cut. So, under sequestration, instead of spending $5.7 trillion on defense over the next decade, as the FY2013 budget suggests, the government will spend about $5.2 trillion.

That $500 billion difference may not actually materialize. Congress has a few options to mitigate the effects of the initial $55 billion slice off the budget. They could reprogram funds after the sequester, change the definition of “programs, projects and activities” (the budget level at which the cuts are implemented), or take advantage of the flexibility within operations and maintenance (O&M) funds. In fact, because the Office of Management and Budget has declared that war spending is eligible to be sequestered, the total cuts to O&M can be spread out across a bigger pot of money. Beyond all that, sequestration does not affect outlays or funds already obligated, which means it will not affect existing contracts. So, the real story is that should sequestration actually happen, Congress and the Pentagon will have much more flexibility than they’re willing to admit.

Our video also highlights the fact that we spend far more on the military than is necessary. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers and pundits have coalesced around the idea that the United States is the “indispensable nation” responsible for protecting everyone from everything. Under the misapprehension that threats anywhere in the world are necessarily threatening to the United States, we have taken on the responsibility of policing the entire planet. This increases the chances that the United States will become involved in conflicts that do not engage vital U.S. interests, or that we do not fully understand, or can easily remedy. This strategic hypochondria (H/T Ted Galen Carpenter) also burden American taxpayers with additional costs that could and should be borne by others. The video includes a nifty graphic showing the expansion of NATO. We have added a host of weak or fragile countries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia (including, still, Iraq and Afghanistan), and now we are doubling down with assurances to Asian nations that we will constrain China (and implying that they need not do so).

In short, a bloated defense budget has enabled these misguided policies, encourages free-riding by our “allies” and make us less safe abroad and less free at home. Though I would have much preferred a serious strategic debate before the current fiscal crisis, and indeed called for such a thing, sequestration should help us to refocus our national security priorities. In fact, the real story is that sequestration doesn’t restrict our choices, it enables us to make better ones.

Americans shouldn’t worry that sequestration will make our defense budget too small. We account for approximately 48 percent of the world’s military spending. We will retain a margin of superiority over any conceivable combination of rivals, including China, even if our share of military spending fell to 44 or 45 percent of the world’s total.

Sequestration was no one’s first choice, but keeping our reckless spending and strategic myopia on auto pilot is worse.

A Modest Victory for Transparency and Accountability in the DoD Budget

Earlier this week I wrote about the Obama administration’s proposal to shift $5.6 billion dollars out of the Pentagon’s base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Because the OCO budget was exempted from last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA), this gimmick was clearly intended to allow the Pentagon to evade the BCA limits, and had attracted the attention of House Budget chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), Republican Study Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-OH), and a handful of budget watchers. I anticipated that one or more members would call attention to it during floor debate over the defense bill.

Sure enough, on Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) offered an amendment to undo the shift. Unfortunately, Mulvaney’s amendment was ruled out of order, ignoring the fact that the entire defense bill exceeded the BCA spending limits and thus also should have been ruled out of order. I thought the proposal to fix the dubious OCO shift would die there.

Not so. Undaunted, Mulvaney returned with a new amendment co-sponsored with Reps. Jordan and Peter Welch (D-VT) that did not actually transfer any funds—thus conforming to House rules—but that expressed the same goals articulated in the earlier amendment. As Mulvaney, Jordan, and Welch explained in a “dear colleague” letter:

Our amendment, similar to a Sense of the House resolution, supports the policy of moving $5.6 billion in non-war costs back to the Base Budget. It fully supports the resources our troops on the battlefield will need, but it does not actually transfer any funding. It simply highlights a non-partisan issue—accountability and transparency—by demonstrating support to move these non-war costs back to the Base Budget in the FY13 CR and future budget requests. (Emphasis in original)

The gambit worked: the resolution passed 238-178, with strong bipartisan support. House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) voted no, as did Appropriations chair Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-KY) and the House Appropriations Committee-Defense Subcommittee chair C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). But 154 Republicans voted for the amendment, including Budget chairman Ryan, House whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Rules Committee chair David Dreier (R-CA).

It was a modest, and largely symbolic, victory for transparency and accountability. The next step is to end the war in Afghanistan and eliminate the OCO account entirely. That separate pot of money for the war(s) has served to obscure the enormous growth in the Pentagon’s base budget over the past decade.