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Issue Brief

Defense Spending: Third Rail for Republicans?
NTU Issue Brief #183

July 18, 2012
By Andrew Moylan

As the House considers its Defense Appropriations bill this week, some Republicans in both chambers continue to agitate for legislation to eliminate the automatic reductions to defense spending mandated as the result of the failed "Supercommittee" process. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney has taken to lobbying Members on the issue. This frenzy has shown just how out of control our spending addiction has become and just how difficult it is to get elected Republicans to publicly support fundamentally reforming the Pentagon.

Republican recalcitrance on trimming defense spending comes despite the fact that many credible figures have laid out reasonable plans for reductions that focus on inefficient, unnecessary, or duplicative programs. In one key example, the National Taxpayers Union joined with U.S. Public Interest Research Group late last year to submit deficit reduction recommendations to the Supercommittee, which included nearly $450 billion in outdated and wasteful military outlays.

It is important to note what the numbers look like in context. As NTUF's Demian Brady wrote a few months back, "Over the ten years since FY 2001, defense spending rose by about $24 billion a year, in constant dollars." Brady put together a chart to show what defense spending has looked like since 1965, again in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars.


That steady upward trend comes at a time with fewer draws on the Treasury to fund war operations overseas and unprecedented fiscal challenges on our side of the pond. When it comes to overspending in the world, we're like Mike Tyson in 1988 or Tiger Woods at the dawn of the new millennium: nobody even comes close. The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that we're on a nice, even pace of spending $100 billion more than we have every single month. We will spend beyond our budget by $1 trillion for the fourth year in a row, and our national debt continues to march toward the cartoonish sum of $16 trillion. Fewer spending engagements abroad and massive budget gaps at home should provide a climate that encourages fundamental reforms to defense spending, by far the largest portion of our discretionary budget.

Unfortunately, some in Congress see things differently. Though the former Vice President is in town to convince House Republicans to undo the sequester, he is largely preaching to the choir. The Defense Appropriations bill before the House this week spends $3.1 billion more than was even requested by military leaders. When you're outspending the wishes of budget-hungry bureaucrats, that's a serious problem. Meanwhile, the House has already acted to replace the defense sequester with trims to food stamps and other social programs.

This interesting chart from Christopher Preble at the Cato Institute projects what defense spending would look like (in 2012 dollars) with and without the sequester reductions. These numbers show that even with the sequester in place, we’ll still be spending at roughly 2006 levels with a steady upward trend through the end of the decade.

Pentagon Spending since 1976

While the food stamp program is in dire need of reform, there is cause for concern that Republicans are stumbling into a similar problem to one Democrats created with Medicare cuts in Obamacare. The health care bill did indeed make about $500 billion worth of cuts to Medicare, but then spent every single dime of the savings on the bill's various health insurance subsidies instead of using them to shore up Medicare's finances. This would be like a broke person deciding to cut back on their restaurant expenditures only to spend every dollar saved on an expensive new car lease. What happens when things really get difficult for them? They've already used up some of the "low hanging fruit" in their budget on a commitment that they can't get out of easily. They've now made it much more difficult to really trim expenses in order to make ends meet.

If Republicans are successful in swapping other cuts for defense reductions, will they in effect be mimicking that broke person's mistake? It’s commendable that the House acted to make common-sense reforms to the exploding food stamp program, but shifting all of those savings into more spending on defense could prove problematic. Given the enormity of our budget problems, shouldn't we tackle waste in the food stamp program AND in the Defense Department at the same time and devote the savings from both to deficit reduction?

There is some good news, however. There have been rumblings from Senate sources about raising taxes in order to wipe out the sequester, but those calls have not gained much traction across the Capitol building. That's a very good thing because any effort to eliminate the defense sequester without offsetting spending cuts or, even worse, with higher taxes would cause a massive uproar in the conservative community and a split between many normally-allied forces.

It is anybody’s guess where we go from here. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have pledged to stymie any effort to tackle the sequester and it seems likely that we're headed for some sort of end-of-year madness with this issue, just as we are with Taxmageddon and everything else that's expiring come winter. However, Congressional Republicans would do well to begin rethinking their approach on defense. If we're going to be serious about reducing our unmanageable deficit, we have to tackle Pentagon waste instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

About the Author

Andrew Moylan is Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, a 362,000-member grassroots taxpayer advocacy group dedicated to fighting for limited government at the federal, state, and local levels.