Conservatives should support defense spending cuts

Mattie Corrao Contributor
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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.

First targeted for cancellation under President Bush, an extra engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter has continued to receive funding despite its redundancy in the defense budget. While President Obama has also proposed eliminating this wasteful project with the full support of Secretary of Defense Gates and the top brass at the Pentagon, Congress continues to earmark funding for it, primarily to preserve jobs in the districts of a few influential members.

The Pentagon’s most recent analysis concluded that completing development of the engine will cost another $3 billion. The current engine made by Pratt & Whitney is already through development and is in production. The manufacturers of the extra engine, GE and the UK’s Rolls Royce, like to say that the extra engine will save taxpayers $20 billion through “competition” and they quote a report from the Government Accountability Office. The report says nothing of the sort. The report states taxpayers might see savings of $2 billion, but only if all the stars align and the government acts in the most efficacious way possible — odds which we know are slim. Add this to the fact that the Joint Strike Fighter program has been over budget since its inception, and it looks even less likely that the program will save taxpayers money.

This reveals the ethos guiding the proponents of the extra engine program in particular and larger defense spending in general — individuals who foresee a $3 billion subsidy staked on the unlikely probability of netting $2 billion in savings as a worthwhile gamble. This is stupidity of a government magnitude.

With spending gaining traction as a significant issue with voters ahead of the November elections, Congress should be wary of such an overt demonstration of pork-barrel patronage and Members should be especially leery of idolizing defense spending. The recently released House GOP “Pledge to America” is noticeably silent on the issue of earmarks, while the self-imposed House Republican earmark moratorium is coming to a close without discussion of its renewal. Democrats, who have presided over an unprecedented jump in discretionary spending over the past few years, have demonstrated little appetite to abolish this profligacy.

Taxpayers, it seems, stand to be droned out — by an unnecessary and wasteful engine.

Mattie Corrao is the Executive Director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, a project of Americans for Tax Reform