“You get a car. You get a car. Everybody gets a car!”
It was the ultimate Oprah Winfrey moment and made for great television. Unfortunately, this is also how negotiations for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 played out. The deal raised the caps for both defense and nondefense spending. Lawmakers made a strong case for a higher defense budget. (You can read how the Pentagon allocated those resources and how it has affected our military readiness.) But the most common argument lawmakers used for raising the cap on nondefense spending was parity, meaning that any increase in defense spendingshould be matched with increases in domestic spending.
“The Pentagon gets a car. Everybody gets a car!”
The parity argument has carried the day in the last three budget deals, providing tremendous impetus for higher spending. But it is not how budgeting is supposed to work. Budgeting should center on priorities and tradeoffs so that Congress achieves its most critical objectives with the resources available. Budgeting should not be an exercise in broad spending hikes that recklessly pile up debt.
The federal government ended fiscal 2018 with a deficit of $779 billion. The total national debt currently sits at more than $21 trillion, almost $66,000 per person. And the outlook is grim. The Congressional Budget Office reports the federal government is on track to rack up another $12 trillion in deficits over the next decade. In just five years, it warns, Washington will be spending more on debt service than on defense.
We can no longer afford to ignore this unsustainable level of federal spending. Without reforms, it is a matter of when, not if, rising debt stifle the economy. If Congress fails to act decisively now, it will be forced to take even more measures later, most likely in the form of huge tax hikes and massive budget cuts. Few Americans would be left unscathed, and it would erode our capacity to defend our interests abroad.
The debt is also closely related to credibility, an essential element in foreign policy and national security. In the current era of great power competition, as described by the White House, credibility determines how countries react to one another. In order to have a credible deterrence, the United States needs a ready and properly sized military. Currently, our armed forces are only marginally capable of meeting the deterrence mark, as demonstrated by the 2019 index of military strength.
To regain credibility, the Navy wants to expand its fleet to 355 ships, and the Air Force wants to increase its number to 386 squadrons. These plans reflect the recognition of the Pentagon that we need a much bigger force to successfully meet the challenges described by the national defense strategy. Despite some indications by President Trump that our armed forces have been “taken care of,” the military still has a long way to go before it attains the capacity needed to ensure our security. Defense Secretary James Mattis understands this reality and expressed that consistent budget increases would be necessary until 2023.
The country will be able to give our military the resources it needs only when Congress starts actually making budget tradeoffs and determining priorities. Lawmakers need to return to treating the budget as an expression of national priorities, instead of a Christmas tree where every lawmaker gets to play Santa and hang a shiny bauble on it. Is America willing to prioritize its military in order to stand up for our values abroad in the face of great powers that do not share them? This is a question of national will. The answer starts with having a credible budget.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 10/22/18