Another Congress, another debt limit showdown. It might seem there is nothing new under the sun.
But something is different this time: In my conversations with members of Congress in recent weeks, conservatives repeatedly mentioned their willingness to tackle the thorny challenge of military spending reforms, in addition to the out-of-control non-defense spending conservatives typically confront. This boldness is a refreshing change from the Washington status quo.
For too long, Republicans considered it a victory to increase defense and non-defense spending by equal dollar amounts, without cutting a dime from the deficit. Congress accepted the D.C. canard that a bigger budget alone equals a stronger military. But now, facing down a record debt to the tune of $242,000 per household, conservatives are ready to tackle an entrenched problem and confront the political establishment, unaccountable federal bureaucrats, and well-connected defense contractors all at once in order to keep the nation both solvent and secure.
Our national debt stands at over 120 percent of GDP, the largest sum since World War II. Most of this debt is the result of a bloated federal bureaucracy, of domestic programs that Congress allows to run at a deficit, and of bipartisan spending sprees like the “emergency” COVID-19 packages. Republicans owe it to their constituents to use the debt limit as an opportunity to reduce spending and shrink the administrative state.
Most Republicans generally give lip service to the idea of cutting spending, but blink when it comes down to the wire. In the end, Democrats hold defense spending hostage from Republican hawks and Washington plays along, with bigger defense and discretionary spending as the deficit balloons. As lawmakers face an impending debt limit deadline yet again, they can’t behave as they’ve done in the past. Defense and non-defense spending must both be on the table.
Today’s Pentagon is approaching a 13-figure annual budget. Congress needs to put away its kid gloves and put the Department of Defense and other agencies alike under the knife to excise wasteful spending. It is a top priority to save our nation, particularly the next generation, from the yoke of debt and an unaccountable, over-funded federal bureaucracy.
Of course, paramount to the goal of fiscal sanity is the goal of a strong national defense. A robust military deters any would-be attackers and protects American interests around the globe. On our military readiness, however, the sirens are blaring: Heritage’s 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength rated the state of our nation’s military as “weak” for the first time. Our military is too outdated to fully protect American interests at home and abroad. We need a stronger military overall, and especially a force able to deter the rising threat of communist China and 21st-century threats.
The task at hand today is to achieve both goals: restore fiscal sanity and ensure our military protects our citizens from today’s threats. Republicans must defund unnecessary programs and unneeded bureaucrats, while also ensuring our military is ready to confront the nation’s threats. It will not be easy, but with enough political will, it can be done.
To get into the right mindset, Congress should refamiliarize itself with Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who was handed a team in 2002 with the third-lowest payroll in the MLB, one-third as much as the Yankees. By defying the prevailing practices of MLB old-timers, who valued the looks of their players ahead of on-base percentage, Beane took a more efficient, data-driven approach and squeezed the most out of every dollar. He took his band of misfits to a 103-59 season and a postseason berth—the same number of wins as the well-funded Yankees.
Congress needs to take a Moneyball approach to our national defense, a much larger contest with life and death consequences if we get it wrong. Instead of engaging in a debate over topline spending numbers and throwing money at old programs and systems, Congress should insist that every dollar is used to advance military lethality and readiness while saving taxpayers as much as possible.
My colleagues at the Heritage Foundation are committed to helping our lawmakers find more savings. In February, we’ll convene top experts in national security and defense to scrutinize the Pentagon’s budget, line by line. Already, we’ve identified some top ways in which Congress can help our military give the taxpayer a square deal. Here’s a sample:
First, Congress and the Pentagon should ruthlessly target wokeness and waste. In the middle of a recruiting crisis, Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Pentagon prioritized onerous vaccine requirements and anti-American “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs. And at a time when the military is increasingly weak, appropriators have jammed about $1.4 billion in non-defense research into the defense budget. Appropriators should immediately slash any program that doesn’t contribute to improved warfighting capabilities.
Second, Congress should go after inefficient and outdated weapons systems and other programs. Individual members of Congress have often insisted on funding programs that serve the wants of their home districts or of defense contractors, putting special interests ahead of overall readiness. For instance, the Army asked to terminate the CH-47 Chinook helicopter for three years running, but Congress keeps adding money back in.
The Pentagon has been telling Congress it has too many bases and facilities for years now. In 2016 the Pentagon estimated they were carrying 22 percent excess infrastructure: unnecessary bases, buildings, and facilities. But since 2005, Congress has been unwilling to consider closing any infrastructure, despite estimated savings of over $2 billion a year. A frustrated Pentagon has now given up on asking for authorization to consider a closure process. It is time for Congress to authorize a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which overcomes parochial interests to close down unneeded bases in a fair and strategic manner, and to apply the same philosophy to the rest of the budget, regardless of how much defense contractors protest.
Third, the United States must insist that its allies do their part, particularly in Europe. Our friends across the Atlantic have for decades enjoyed the protection of the American military and were content to spend less than the NATO goal of 2 percent of their GDP on defense while Uncle Sam protected their backyard, even while countries such as Germany enjoyed budget surpluses. It is time for them to end their free riding, pick up the tab, and meet their NATO obligations. We should use our considerable leverage to insist on it. This doesn’t mean abandoning Europe—far from it. But pushing our allies to take a greater role in defending their own continent will allow the United States to repurpose funds, troops, and programs to counter the larger global threat of communist China.
There are far more programs and ways for Congress to right-size the Pentagon budget, but the first step is to stop running the same old Swamp playbook and start playing Moneyball. Congress has the chance to show it can walk and chew gum at the same time, keeping our homeland safe while prioritizing Americans first, if it is willing to make the hard decisions necessary to do so.
Conservatives on the Hill must step up and face the challenge head-on, or face the righteous fury of the American people if they vote for business as usual. I am optimistic they’ll make the right choice.
This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative