As Congress prepares for a spending fight over the debt ceiling, some Republicans are speculating that conservatives will have to sacrifice national defense if they want to balance the budget, leaving the U.S. vulnerable to China. Nothing is further from the truth. But a robust defense policy does require restoring the nation’s fiscal health.
Dispelling the threat China poses will require the type of resolve demonstrated after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. That strike caught America flat-footed, but after an unparalleled military buildup the U.S. engaged in—and decisively won—the war in the European and Pacific theaters.
Some in Washington may be tempted to liken the current predicament to 1940 when the U.S. was drifting, unprepared, toward a conflict. Noting that the percent of gross domestic product spent on national defense is near a historic low (3.3%) and projected to go lower, they urge those who see the threat from China to treat the defense budget as a sacred cow—one that must be fattened indiscriminately, regardless of fiscal realities. This ignores that if Washington continues spending as it has, we will never again have the economic heft to mount the kind of military buildup the U.S. had in the early 1940s.
The current ratio of debt held by the public to GDP—one gauge of a country’s ability to pay its debts—is around 100%. This level of indebtedness is the same as at the end of World War II, when the military buildup was complete and the war won. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania projects that, at the current rate of spending, the debt-to-GDP ratio will be 225% by 2050. Such massive indebtedness would gut the U.S.’s ability to respond aggressively in a conflict with China.
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The new Republican House majority must find a way to maintain military strength while restoring fiscal discipline. Unlike universal healthcare and fantasy energy projects, the Constitution mandates providing for the common defense.
One proposal is to return federal discretionary spending in fiscal 2024 to fiscal 2022 levels—a cut of more than $130 billion. It is possible to do that and preserve defense spending even to $858 billion, the level agreed to in December’s National Defense Authorization Act—if we return annual non-defense spending from $744 billion to pre-pandemic levels, or $597 billion. That is an important first step in getting our nation’s fiscal house in order. It also would reduce outlays to the many federal agencies—such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health—that Democrats have weaponized against the American people.
The false choice posed by Democrats—that any cuts to their cherished bureaucracies and domestic programs must be matched with cuts in defense—should be rejected. The goal must be to fund defense appropriately and pare bloated federal bureaucracies.
But it is equally false to say there is nothing to cut at the Pentagon, which must get back into the military business and abandon the woke indoctrination and climate fetishism on which it spends wastefully. Savings from scrapping those initiatives would help restore morale, thereby increasing the lethality of U.S. forces and reassuring Americans who worry about the politicization of the military.
Fiscal hawks and China hawks aren’t enemies. We both want a safe and prosperous America. We should work together to get our budget in order because we understand what may be required to deter, and if necessary fight, China.
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had the resources to mount an unprecedented war effort that defeated our enemies and unleashed the first American century. We did it once, and we shouldn’t spend so much that our children and grandchildren cannot do it again.
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 9, 2023