BY TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE – Political leaders tackling our budget mess should have visited the Washington Convention Center this week for a lesson on federal spending. The Association of the United States Army packed hundreds of exhibitors into two exposition halls the size of football fields at its annual convention, and companies from around the world came to sell the U.S. Army everything from mammoth tanks to micro-thin wires. Corporations such as Raytheon and KBR erected multi-level installations nearly big enough to generate their own zip code, complete with conference rooms and coffee bars.
In his address to the convention, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called sequestration, which would impose $600 billion in defense cuts if the Joint Select Deficit Reduction Committee (or Super Committee)’s $1.2 trillion in proposed reductions are not adopted by Congress, a “doomsday mechanism.” Later in the week, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), who represents a district heavy with defense contractors, launched an initiative claiming that sequestration would “cause significant harm to United States interests.” The initiative echoed a report released last month by the majority staff of the House Armed Services Committee that read like a list of campaign debate talking points—light on facts but replete with fear-mongering claims that reductions risked “increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation” as well as our ability to “adequately defend allies.”
This all cleverly misses the point. Sequestration was meant to be the scary stick to get Congress to take the deficit cutting medicine. What big defense budget boosters are trying to do with this line of reasoning is to protect Pentagon spending in the Super Committee deliberations as well.
It’s no surprise that the Pentagon would scramble to protect its flank in these budget-cutting times, but the offense from Panetta, Congress, and industry is brazenly alarmist—and sometimes downright wrong. Panetta told Congress that sequestration would increase the country’s unemployment rate by 1 percent, despite absence of any evidence. And presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney pledged in a speech to “reverse Obama’s massive defense cuts.” But the defense budget has actually increased billions of dollars under President Barack Obama.
Let’s review some more facts. First of all, the $450 billion in defense cuts that the debt ceiling deal enacted would only lower the rate of increase in DOD’s budget, a rate that has gone through the roof in the last ten years. Even the “doomsday mechanism” would only bring DOD’s budget back down to the 2007 level—a pretty comfy one, considering war spending won’t be touched.
Second, our country faces a $1.3 trillion deficit, and every part of the government needs to step up and trim down. As consumer of the largest piece of our discretionary budget pie, the Defense Department cannot dodge its share, nor can tax expenditures, entitlements, and other discretionary spending. There’s certainly plenty of fat to cut at DOD: The agency buys more than $1 billion of goods and services every day; employs some three million people globally, more than the world’s largest corporation; and its headquarters, the Pentagon, is the world’s largest office building. If that doesn’t epitomize Big Government, we don’t know what does.
Finally, the chances of sequestration coming to pass are slim to none, and Forbes et al know it. Whatever the Super Committee produces, it will fall to Congress to adopt the recommendations or come up with some of their own. As we said, this full-court press on behalf of defense is likely an attempt to dissuade the committee from making any cuts at all, or prepare for the battle over programs that will take place in Congress over the coming years. Exploiting taxpayers’ anxieties about jobs and safety is a cynical way to avoid making tough decisions that will affect our security for decades to come.