The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the costs of the Pentagon’s current plans will total nearly $3.8 trillion over the next seven years, $308 billion more than is permitted by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).
That $3.8 trillion represents the Pentagon’s base budget, not the entirety of federal spending on national security. It does not include, for example, nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy; nor the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs; nor overseas operations in Afghanistan, and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But I digress.
If spending exceeds the BCA caps, CBO observes, the Pentagon will be forced to “make sharp additional cuts to the size of its forces, curtail the development and purchase of weapons, reduce the extent of its operations and training, or implement some combination of those three actions.”
A more likely scenario, however, is that the new Republican-controlled Congress will adjust or eliminate the BCA spending caps. According to The Daily Beast, Sen. John McCain’s “first order of business as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be to end the budget rule known as sequestration, which requires the U.S. military to cut its budget across the board.”
If McCain succeeds, military spending advocates can be expected to push through dramatic increases in the Pentagon’s budget. Indeed, if House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s FY15 budget is any indication, the Pentagon would receive over the next seven years nearly $100 billion more than it has requested.
How would Republicans pay for such increases? Many would prefer to find the money by cutting non-defense discretionary spending, or by reforming entitlement programs. But it’s difficult to envision Democrats agreeing to such proposals, especially if the Pentagon is the primary beneficiary. Others, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, are open to the idea of raising tax revenue by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. But most Republicans remain allergic to tax increases, and they are likely to confront a bipartisan coalition of outside groups that has adamantly opposed past efforts to circumvent the BCA in order to fund higher Pentagon budgets. The easiest path is, as usual, debt. Thus, expect another Ryan-Murray style “cave-in” that puts additional Pentagon spending on the country’s credit card.
Despite all that talk during the mid-term election campaigns of President Obama’s reckless deficits, Washington’s willingness to spend the people’s money – including money the people don’t yet have – is a bipartisan affliction.
The only hope, it seems, is to stick to the current spending caps, imperfect though they may be. The BCA caps are not the wisest way to curb military spending, but they are all we have.