About That Non‐​Discretionary Spending

January 26, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on January 26, 2010.

It has been reported that President Obama is planning a three‐​year budget freeze on a big chunk of discretionary spending. But there will be one prominent exception; security spending, i.e. military and presumably other departments and agencies in the national security complex

This is all part of so‐​called fiscal responsibility, as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs characterized it at yesterday’s press briefing:

Q Okay. And Senator Bayh said the President may propose a freeze in most federal discretionary spending in the State of the Union. Can you say anything about that?

MR. GIBBS: Look, the President, as I said earlier to Jennifer’s question, the President will talk about ensuring that we begin to get our fiscal house in order, that we have to start making decisions like American families are making decisions about whether or not we can afford to spend as we have over the past many years. I don’t want to get into the details of that right now from here, but suffice to say that will be part of the State of the Union — discussing fiscal responsibility.

Writing in Salon, former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted, “A spending freeze will make it even harder to get jobs back because government is the last spender around.”

But beyond that, exempting military spending is a bad idea. First, the projected amount of money devoted just to the Pentagon is expected to keep growing. Granting it immunity from budget cuts will only encourage its use as a pork barrel par excellence for the military‐​industrial‐​congressional complex.

A newly updated Congressional Budget Office study updates projections contained in CBO’s January 2009 paper Long‐​Term Implications of the 2009 Future Years Defense Program, reflecting changes that the new Administration made to defense plans in preparing the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2010.

In CBO’s estimation, carrying out the Pentagon’s 2009 plans for 2010 and beyond — excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and some much smaller military actions elsewhere — would funding averaging at least $573 billion annually (in 2010 dollars) from 2011 to 2028.

That amount is about 7 percent more than the $534 billion in total obligational authority the Administration requested in its regular 2010 budget, again excluding overseas contingency operations.

The projection also exceeds the peak of about $500 billion (in 2010 dollars) during the height of the Reagan Administration’s military buildup in the mid‐​1980s.

Of course back then we could at least point to a nuclear armed Soviet Union as a justification. Are we really supposed to believe that Al‐​Qaeda or Islamist extremism is as big a threat?

Furthermore, Pentagon’s requirements to execute the same plans could be even greater. CBO has also estimated some “unbudgeted” costs that reflect the likelihood that weapon systems would cost more than initially estimated; that medical costs and fuel prices would grow at rates faster than DoD has anticipated; and that pay raises the Congress enacts for military personnel and DoD’s civilian employees might exceed the percentages in the department’s plans. And, of course, because nothing ever goes according to plan, additional appropriations may be necessary to fund overseas contingency operations.

Including these unbudgeted costs increases the projection to an annual average of $632 billion through 2028, or 18 percent more than the regular funding requested for 2010.

Some 35 percent of the total unbudgeted costs between 2013 and 2028 are associated with overseas contingency operations; in particular, the analysis includes the potential costs — about $20 billion per year — of deploying 30,000 troops to contingency operations from 2013 through 2028. The total costs of $670 billion at the endpoint in 2028 would approach the peak of the past three years (measured in 2010 dollars), which includes the height of operations in Iraq.

Not included in the unbudgeted cost projections, however, is the funding needed to increase U.S. presence in Afghanistan as the President announced on December 1, 2009. Although the Administration’s 2010 budget planned for an increase in U.S. service members in Afghanistan from 59,000 to 68,000, neither that budget nor CBO’s projection anticipated the further increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Note that the CBO study says “CBO does not have access to DoD’s estimates of costs for overseas contingency operations in 2011 or later. Those estimates would have been contained in the 2010 Future Years Defense Program, an adjunct to the budget submission that the Administration chose not to submit to the Congress for 2010.”

It is rather difficult, to say the least, for Congress to carry out its Constitutionally mandated responsibility (Article 1, Section 8) “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States,” if the White House does not provide the required information.

But the CBO projections do not give the whole story. Consider what the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project Director Winslow Wheeler wrote earlier this month about a new $33 billion spending supplement for the Pentagon in 2010 to pay for President Obama’s Afghanistan surge of additional soldiers and marines.

It will very probably not include whatever billions Obama wants to spend in Yemen. He will want additional money for more strikes from unmanned drones against targets declared to be al Qaeda leaders (but also including civilians) and for billions in foreign aid to a government that rivals the one in Afghanistan for its corruption, incompetence, and domestic unpopularity. We may see another supplemental, later on.

Nevertheless, the supplemental will be bloated. The parts of it for Afghanistan will be inflated with various goodies. In virtually every supplemental in the past, DOD has stuffed in additional spending for new aircraft and other hardware and programs that it wants for general uses not really for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama people in the Pentagon said they would end all that. I seriously doubt it; the $33 billion total is far more than they need to support the additional 30,000 troops Obama wants in Afghanistan as soon as he gets them there. Even crediting the cost of the new troops at the outlandishly high cost of $1 million per troop per year, you can’t get to $33 billion: those troops will only begin to arrive in the next few months, well after the fiscal year started last October. (30,000 troops for 6 months would be $15 billion; for 9 months would be about $23 billion, not $33, even assuming the looney $1 million per troop estimate.)

Then, of course, expect Congress to add some junk: still more superfluous C-17 cargo aircraft ($250 million each), some smaller but cost‐​bloated C-130 cargo aircraft (they used to cost about $20 million, but now they are up to $70 million), some F-18 fighter/​bombers (the Navy and Boeing are just nuts for more) and whatever else those paragons of virtue and thrift Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) at the House and Senate Appropriations Committees can dream up to keep the rest of the pork‐​crazed Congress happy with their “leadership.”

And don’t forget the big picture. The additional $33 billion will bring the total DOD budget for the current fiscal year up to $708 billion.

That amount is more than we spent on the Pentagon in any year since 1946 — in dollars adjusted for inflation. … Those levels of Pentagon spending do not include what we pay for foreign aid, arms sales and arms control, Veterans, Homeland Security, the Pentagon’s share of interest on the national debt, and more. To tally up our entire national security budget, we can get very cozy with $1 Trillion.

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