With Congress neglecting to pass a budget this year and instead punting to the president’s so-called National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the national focus has shifted to the deficit. However, with unprecedented government growth over the past few years, it is clear the nation’s problem isn’t its deficit; it’s its spending.
Spending in general has caused the country’s present fiscal havoc. Despite the lip service paid to prudence on both sides of the aisle, the pork barrel process is still alive and well in Washington. This is true across the board — with the Pentagon as well as with the Department of Health and Human Services.
During the George W. Bush years, defense spending averaged 3.7 percent of GDP. However, under President Obama, these outlays have continued to grow. Despite his vociferous platitudes of peace during the campaign season, defense spending under Obama has reached 4.7 percent of GDP, the highest since the early 1990s.
President Bush, who created a new federal department charged with domestic security, waged two new offenses in the Middle East and initiated the War on Terror, kept spending an entire percentage point lower than the current average. With the disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and a supposedly anti-war president, war hawks in both parties could comfortably support returning to these spending levels without sacrificing American security. It’s a perfectly acceptable conservative position that George W. Bush’s average level of defense spending should be a reasonable target to both protect America and promote fiscal responsibility.
Unfortunately, opposition has emerged from individuals who are loath to support spending cuts when they occur in the sacred cow of defense budgets. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal authored by no less auspicious figures than Heritage’s Ed Feulner, AEI’s Arthur Brooks, and the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol lamented that defense spending is currently “significantly below” the World War II average and is still less than the historic defense spending overseen by Reagan. This, of course, ignores what defense spending actually is: another ballooning bottom line.
Since 2008, non-security discretionary spending has grown by 84 percent. The security-minded individuals who argue that defense spending — which has grown by 67 percent in the same time period — has not kept adequate pace with federal outlays cannot be considered serious friends of the taxpayers who are funding this exorbitant growth.
The authors of the Wall Street Journal piece don’t stop there either. They point to the increase in mandatory outlays as another benchmark with which defense spending has been unable to keep up. Using unsustainable entitlement spending as a reliable metric for spending is a laughable, if not entirely foolish, exercise, especially when the effort is aimed at keeping politically favorable spending off the table. This façade of fiscal prudence is no different than the one paraded by the president, whose fiscal commission has promised to reduce the deficit without committing to any spending cuts. One man’s waste is another man’s entitlement or subsidy; pretending we can pick and choose where to be frugal on the path to fiscal austerity is a fool’s errand.
What’s more, the Defense Department is notorious for its wasteful spending, which has gone largely unnoticed because of its protected status in appropriators’ hearts and minds. The most recent debate on lucrative defense earmarking offers some insight into why taxpayers are shouldering the heaviest defense spending burden in years.