Veterans weigh in: $16 trillion debt endangers security

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What do American military veterans believe is the greatest threat to our nation’s security? If you think the answer is China, the Iranian nuclear threat, or foreign terrorist groups, guess again: Nearly three-quarters of veterans we surveyed last month cite economic weakness (42 percent) and the national debt (30 percent) as the top threats to national security.

As policymakers in Washington wrestle with historic budget deficits — and candidates hit the stump with plans to jumpstart the economy — they should keep these results in mind.

Veterans are often assumed to be a monolith, focused narrowly on VA health and retirement benefits. They’re not. Our military and veterans — having sworn an oath to defend the Constitution — have a keen eye towards all threats to our nation’s future, foreign and domestic. They know that our nation’s military might and inherent freedoms are inextricably tied to our economic health.

Next week, the national debt will surpass $16 trillion — a historic high and new low. Each day it grows by roughly $3.5 billion, and in a matter of years, interest payments on our debt will exceed defense outlays. Worse yet, at 104 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the debt is now larger than the American economy; and this year marks the fourth consecutive year with a $1 trillion budget shortfall. We’re underwater, yet there seems to be no relief in sight, with deficits forecast as far as the eye can see.

For the United States, which secures American and Western interests around the globe, the $16 trillion debt — combined with scant economic growth — is a recipe for compromised security. As our leaders seek to stanch the flow of deficit spending and mounting interest payments on the debt, the 19 percent of our budget that pays for our defense is increasingly a top target.

Why? Because it’s easier to cut back on military priorities than muster the courage to reform entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — programs that together command a much larger portion of the federal budget (62 percent) and are the overwhelming drivers of current and future debt. Those programs — especially Medicare — also constitute a political maze of presidential proportions, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks.

As a result, it’s our military strength that’s on the chopping block. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned months ago about the dangers of taking a “meat ax” to the military budget, but nonetheless — in January of next year — the first round of $500 billion in defense cuts is slated to take effect under “sequestration” — Washington-speak for across-the-board cuts.

This is not to say defense spending should be sacrosanct. Just the opposite: the defense budget is ripe for reform, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. Veterans especially know the Pentagon suffers from too many bloated and outdated programs and a wasteful, inefficient procurement process. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the smart, sensible budget reform that the times demand.

Instead, we’re seeing proposed lay-offs of uniformed military personnel, while the career bureaucracy in the Defense Department grows without end. We’re seeing reductions in training, while favored contractors continue receiving billions for questionable projects. The end result can be predicted: a weakened military unprepared to meet the challenges of a dangerous world, and indiscriminate cuts that don’t make a systemic dent in our national debt.

The truth is, we cannot balance our budget on the backs of our warfighters. Eliminating every penny of our $700 billion annual defense budget would only halve the annual federal budget deficit. And on the revenue side, taxing 100% of the entire net-worth of the top 100 billionaires in America would only pay the other half of one year’s deficit.

We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we cannot ignore the facts. We literally can’t cut enough defense spending, or raise enough taxes, to solve our budget woes — let alone address our long-term national debt. There’s only one path back to fiscal sanity and long-term security: reform our bloated entitlement programs, streamline Pentagon spending, and promote pro-growth tax policies that incentivize entrepreneurship and business expansion. Veterans know this is how we ultimately make America stronger and safer.

Partisans on both sides of the aisle seek to cast blame on the other party, but it’s time to set aside the blame game and admit the truth: Democrats and Republicans have both contributed to our fiscal woes, and we can’t afford more delay and dysfunction.

Our veterans are saying it loud and clear — enough with rampant government spending that’s weakening our nation. Washington needs to focus on delivering a budget plan that cuts deficits, reduces debt, and allows our nation a chance to get back on the road to prosperity and security.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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