Why Freeze Spending on Only Part of the Budget?
January 27, 2010
The results of the special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy reverberated like a “shot heard ’round the world”—or at least one heard ’round Washington. All the spending lately in Washington has apparently alienated the political independents that Barack Obama won in November 2008. And the president gets the message—or at least he is making a good show of it.
His new proposal is a severely qualified three-year spending freeze, covering only about an eighth of the federal budget. The proposal covers only “discretionary spending,” programs that Congress appropriates money for each year, and leaves out the faster growing entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are ballooning on automatic pilot. Admittedly, entitlement programs are hard to cut, because . . . well . . . people feel entitled to their government handouts.
Yet Obama’s proposed spending freeze, which in fiscal year 2010 will save only a measly $10-$15 billion in a $3.5 trillion annual federal budget, doesn’t even cover all discretionary spending. Exempt are the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and foreign aid. Yet DoD spending alone, with the Cold War long over, is the greatest in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II and has doubled since George W. Bush took office in 2001.
President Obama’s rationale for not including these security expenditures in his discretionary spending freeze is that he is prosecuting two wars. Aside from the obvious solution of ending the two conflicts—which are part of the “war on terror” but have had the counterproductive effect of increasing retaliatory terrorism—and cutting back the defense budget, defense spending could be reduced even if the two war efforts are sustained.
Just as Obama used the economic crisis to try to pass an unrelated and expensive health care bill, George W. Bush used the 9/11 attacks to conduct an unrelated invasion of Iraq, which he then used as an excuse to pump up the defense and non-defense budgets. Although Obama has deepened the national debt and budget deficit, most of the two are still mostly Bush’s, because his reckless spending lasted eight years and Obama’s has only been going for a year so far. Still, despite different political rhetoric, some things never change in Washington.
So why doesn’t Obama at least freeze security spending? Could it be that the “war on terror” requires Cold War-like resources to be successful? No, the intelligence, drones, and CIA and Special Forces operations to conduct a real, covert, and more effective war on terror are reasonably cheap. The real answer as to why there is no defense spending freeze: Because Democrats are always scared of being called “wimps” on national security issues—likely the same reason Obama had to support at least one overseas war and thus reluctantly escalated the Afghanistan conflict.
Even if the Afghan war is considered necessary, however, it has nothing to do with most of the defense budget. A large part of that budget is doled out to special interests, including defense industries and even uniformed service members.
So here are some suggestions of items that could be cut from the defense budget without harming national security. The Navy could cancel the CVN-79 aircraft carrier, terminate the building of littoral combat ships and LPD-26-class amphibious vessels, stop production of exorbitantly expensive DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, and terminate production of SSN-774 Virginia-class submarines. The Navy has little relevance to the war on terror and, with existing equipment, has crushing dominance over any other fleet in the world. The Air Force should stop production of C-17 aircraft, which are expensive compared to sealift, and delay production of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter until flight tests have been satisfactory. The Marines should cancel the MV-22 Osprey aircraft; the range and speed advantages over existing helicopters are not worth the much higher cost.
The Army and Marines should end expansion of their forces. Adding more soldiers is very expensive because of added salaries, benefits, equipment, and support. If any presidential administration feels it needs to use military force against terrorists, it should be employed only sparingly after law enforcement methods have failed, and with a lighter footprint so that it doesn’t fuel the Islamist fire that it seeks to dampen. Thus, if the United States is not conducting counterproductive occupations of Muslim lands to ostensibly quell terrorism, the ground forces need not be augmented, and even can be reduced. This reduction should allow cutting the weapons and equipment that are purchased for such forces.
Finally, there are loads of pork in the foreign aid and homeland security budgets that could be extracted. At most (and even this is a stretch), Obama’s proposed limited spending freeze will result in a savings of only 3 percent of the ballooning budget deficits in the next 10 years. To avoid his predecessor’s reputation of “spending like a drunken sailor,” Obama must include massive entitlements and discretionary security spending in his budget cutting for it to be serious.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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