If You Cut the Budget, The Terrorists Win!

Peter Beinart tells readers of this week’s New Republic that the conservative critics of President Bush need to just get over themselves. 

As Beinart writes:

To listen to Bush’s critics, you would think that discretionary, nonsecurity-related spending has exploded on his watch. [Note: Emphasis is mine — you’ll see why this is important in a minute]. But it hasn’t. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown, when you take account of inflation and population growth, it grew a mere 2 percent between 2001 and 2006. And, as a percentage of GDP, it actually fell. What has exploded — rising 32 percent after inflation and population growth — is spending on defense, homeland security, and international affairs. And the people most responsible for those increases are conservatives themselves, who demanded an expansive war on terrorism.*

The first half of the claim boils down to this: If you strip away defense, homeland security, entitlement spending and international aid — what Beinart calls “discretionary, nonsecurity-related spending” — you discover that government hasn’t really grown all that much by historical standards. 

The problem? Those categories account for 80 percent of the entire federal budget.

Call it the “Yeah, but” defense. Yeah, the budget has expanded massively, but if you take away the really big categories — and don’t feel compelled to clarify how you’re defining those big categories — then we come off looking really good! (Of course, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the GOP really doesn’t come off looking good. Let’s just assume they do for the sake of argument.) 

What’s missing from this don’t-mind-the-man-behind-the-curtain reasoning is an explanation of why stripping away all those categories yields a more useful comparison than simply looking at overall spending in the conventional and broadly-defined categories. Beinart doesn’t provide one. 

Avoiding such an explanation, however, ignores an important part of the argument he’s trying to critique. One of the more substantial complaints about the modern GOP leaders — a complaint shared not just by fiscal conservatives but also by centrist Democrats who also worry that spending has gotten out of hand — is their unwillingness to pursue offsetting spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Hurricane Katrina relief, or the various and sundry government expansions that Bush and congressional leaders have dreamed up. 

The second part of Beinart’s claim that the ”war on terrorism” is driving defense spending is also flawed. Only 16% of the combined defense budgets of the past six years went to the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to CBO estimates … and that’s assuming you include the Iraq operations as part of the war on terrorism. Why ignore the remaining 84 percent of the Pentagon budget?

The fiscal conservative critique of the GOP is in part a reaction against the presumption that all categories of spending — from unnecessary defense systems to crop subsidies — must rise or else the terrorists will “win.”  Recall, for instance, that the rhetoric around the 2002 farm bill was heavily laden with various references to national security. A “Dear Colleague” letter from Alabama Republican Terry Everett is indicative of the rhetoric used by supporters of that bill. In the letter, Everett claimed the bill would help “strengthen America’s national security” and “keep America strong.”   

Excluding all entitlement programs is also too nice to the GOP — or any party in power, for that matter. Congress has the power to moderate the growth of these programs, but they haven’t used that power more than once in the past six years and then only to very minimal effect. They could have reformed these programs, too, but they didn’t. Nor did they have to expand Medicare.       

I think government should be doing less. I have deep doubts about the war in Iraq. And I’m not a member of the doing-more-with-less school of efficient-government conservatism. But I and other Bush critics would certainly have less solid ground to stand on if overall government spending had remained tame over the past six years. Remember that under Reagan, despite a massive defense buildup, overall real annual federal budget growth was 2.6% — close to half the rate under George W. Bush so far. The rate was so low in the 1980s — lower than any president since Eisenhower — because substantial tradeoffs were being made in the budget then. Tradeoffs are not being made today.

Stripping out all sorts of different spending categories simply lets the GOP off easy. It also puts Beinart in the strange position of parroting the same defense the White House has used to fend off criticism of the president’s record.

A New Republic writer defending a Republican president’s budget record. Left-of-center analysts rallying to the defense of a GOP Congress. What’s next?  Dogs and cats living together?

* - An argument over whether these numbers are solid has already taken place at The American Scene blog run by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who also use the CBPP numbers to rebut criticisms of President Bush. “War on terror” and “homeland security” expenses are both non-traditional budget categories that are not consistently delineated in the official federal data on spending. Any attempt to disaggregate the data must rely on multiple assumptions about how you classify each sort of spending program. In other words, readers need to take the CBPP estimates with more than a few grains of salt. (For more criticism of their estimates, numbers-junkies can read my Cato study from 2005 and my new book.)