Politics, Claims and Counter-Claims: How to Evaluate the Budget

February 9, 2012

Monday’s release of the administration’s budget request for 2013 will feature piles of documents and layers of political claims and counter-claims. To evaluate them, ask whether proposals meet three tests: The need for spending that secures the economy that undergirds our security as well as keeps us safe. The need for spending priorities that are matched to strategy. And the need for defense dollars to be spent where they will be most effective – and jobs-creating dollars likewise. Lastly, after the shouting stops the country needs a calm discussion of how to deal with the sequester passed by Congress last year, not more hyperbole about defense provisions, which would reduce spending only to 2007 levels.

Is the proposed level of military spending responsible, both for our security and our economic health? As the New York Times reported last month, “There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade — the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer — is acceptable. That is about 8 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget.” The FY 2013 budget will mark the first year base defense spending doesn’t grow since 1998, in stark contrast to domestic discretionary spending. As Defense News notes, “When looking at discretionary spending, the part of the budget Congress controls through annual appropriations, defense spending… accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending.” The Council on Foreign Relations explains, “The budget is only set to fall in actual dollar amount from 2012 to 2013, after which it will continue to grow at or near the rate of inflation. So in effect, it would be more accurate to portray the real budget (green line) as roughly frozen for this period, rather than achieving the ‘savings’ advertised by the Defense Department.” CFR continues, saying, “Some critics chide the Pentagon for failing to make meaningful cuts to a base budget that has risen by nearly 80 percent since 2001. ‘Mr. Obama is only barely shifting the needle,’ says Edward Luce in the Financial Times. ‘He is still reluctant to make an explicit trade-off between confronting a bloated U.S. military and rejuvenating U.S. economic competitiveness.’”

Critics have raised the post-Vietnam specter of reductions in military spending, which resuled in a “hollow” force unable to perform core missions. But the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says that both the scope of the cuts and the national environment are so different that the comparison is inappropriate. Recently CRS found that, “Given these conditions, it can be argued that the use of the term ‘hollow force’ is inappropriate under present circumstances.” Finally, military spending must also be considered as a part of broader government spending. [NY Times, 1/2/12. Defense News, 2/8/12. CFR.org, 1/7/12. CRS via Federation of American Scientists, 2/3/12]

Do these reductions flow from the strategy? At this time of year above all others, as the great Bernard Brodie wrote, “Strategy wears a dollar sign.” The budget – or counterproposals – can be judged against the main principles of the strategy review the Pentagon released last month:

Focus on Asia/Pacific and the Middle East. On the Asia-Pacific region, the strategy states that “we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” while also promising “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in — and support of — partner nations in and around this region [the Middle East].” [Defense Strategic Guidance, 1/12]

Flexible, agile force. Secretary Panetta has promised, “The military will be smaller and leaner, but it will be agile, flexible, and technologically advanced… It will be a cutting edge force. … We will ensure we can quickly confront and defeat aggression from any adversary, anytime, anywhere from any place.” [Leon Panetta via Stars and Stripes, 1/26/12]

Ending outdated Cold War weapons systems. Military leaders and bipartisan thinkers have talked openly about cutting back some programs, nuclear weapons chief among them, and considering the possibility of a significantly smaller nuclear deterrent in future. As President Obama has explained, “We will continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems.” [Barack Obama via AP, 1/28/12]

Prepare to meet future threats as they arise. The Defense Strategic Guidance states, “DoD will manage the force in ways that protect its ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future, unforeseen demands, maintaining intellectual capital and rank structure that could be called upon to expand key elements of the force.” [Defense Strategic Guidance, 1/12]

What will this do to the economy? With cuts in non-defense discretionary spending resulting in government job losses and slowing the recovery, the question of how defense reductions affect jobs is frequently raised – because defense dollars are spent in almost every congressional district. Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, notes, “Defense is not now — nor was it ever intended to be — a jobs program… The federal government should base its defense spending on the strategy it develops to deal with the threats it faces — not on how many jobs it will create or the condition of our economy… Applying $1 billion to domestic spending priorities would create far more jobs than the same $1 billion spent on the military, according to a 2009 analysis by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett Peltier, economists at the University of Massachusetts. For example, spending on educational services creates almost three times as many jobs as military spending, and health care creates almost twice as many. Tax cuts create almost 30 percent more jobs than spending money on weapons.” [Lawrence Korb, 11/16/11]

What about sequestration? The budget release will not take into account the possibility of another $472 billion in reductions over the next decade, under the sequestration plan Congress itself passed last August. The sequester’s defense provisions have occasioned sky-is-falling rhetoric but, notes Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, sequestration would “return the base defense budget to roughly the same level it was in FY 2007, adjusting for inflation.” Given political gridlock, the Pentagon should plan for sequestration, writes Harrison: “If this downturn in defense spending is like previous downturns, the FY 2013 budget projection the administration is about to release may prove to be highly optimistic. History suggests that defense spending will decline steadily over the decade, not remain flat as the budget plan projects. The failure to plan for the possibility of additional reductions in defense spending is a major shortfall in the new defense strategy. The Pentagon can and should begin preparing for the possibility  of  more  reductions,  especially  the  prospect  of  sequestration,  lest  it  be caught unprepared by a perfectly foreseeable contingency.” Avoiding sequestration remains possible if conservatives can get past rigid anti-tax ideology. As Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has suggested, “We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues… You’ve got to have revenues.” [CSBA, 2/12. Carl Levin via the Cable, 1/25/12]

What We’re Reading

Attacks by Syrian forces on several major rebellious areas across the country continued despite diplomatic attempts by Russia’s leaders.

German authorities expelled four Syrian diplomats after arresting two men accused separately of spying on rivals of President Bashar al Assad.

Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister pledged that Egypt would resist U.S. pressure to stop criminal prosecutions of 19 Americans.

The United States and Israel differ over whether Iran’s crucial nuclear facilities are about to become unassailable.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri says that the Somali militant group al Shabab has formally joined al Qaeda.

Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, maintains that only a minority of Afghan units can operate without American or NATO aid.

Authorities in the Maldives issued an arrest warrant for the country’s prime minister following his resignation.

The State Department prepares to reduce by as much as half the diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq.

Israel’s main labor union began a general strike, clashing over nonunion contract workers.

The Greek deputy labor minister has resigned in opposition to a new round of austerity cuts.

Commentary of the Day

George Will chastises the Republican Party for irresponsible promises on defense budget and war.

Ed Husain argues we must not intervene militarily in Syria.

Maria Lipman and Nikolay Petrov write that even if Russian protests do not radically change the country’s politics, they could undermine Putin’s leadership.

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