Progressives Are Eyeing the Last Slice of the Budget

COMMENTARY Defense

Progressives Are Eyeing the Last Slice of the Budget

Mar 17th, 2021 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Thomas Spoehr

Director, Center for National Defense

Thomas W. Spoehr conducts and supervises research on national defense matters.

Key Takeaways

A reasonable discussion of the defense budget would also include an assessment of the current state of U.S. Armed Forces and their ability to defend the nation.

Questioning the proper level of defense funding is an appropriate role for Congress, but it must be based on a foundation of facts, not slogans.

Congress can play a role in helping the Pentagon save money.

A medium pizza usually has eight slices. A tense ritual occurs in many homes when the family turns to the last piece. Often someone who dearly wants the slice will politely ask: “Who wants the last piece?” If someone tries to grab that slice without raising the ritualistic question, the dinner can end in a fractious dispute.

Interestingly, a single piece of pizza roughly represents the Pentagon’s slice of the federal budget: about 14 percent of overall spending in Fiscal Year 2021. That percentage has been trending downward for decades. In 1985 it was over 25 percent, before that, higher still. Other federal spending—notably Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – is inexorably squeezing defense spending to a lower level each year. 

But now—like an impolite little brother—Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-Calif.) has essentially declared that she’s going to take a hefty bite out of that last slice of pizza.

Lee recently told Politico that she and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are looking at strategies to chomp at least 10 percent out of the defense budget. Military spending, she said, is “detracting from the country’s non-military needs,” adding, “10 percent is low, that’s the floor.”  

Lee and Pocan’s views are admittedly extreme, even for the Democratic Party. A legislative proposal to cut the defense budget was decisively voted down last July by wide bipartisan margins in both the Senate (77-23) and House (324-93). Yet the progressive desire to defund national security should be addressed, lest it attract unwitting support.  

In the course of debate over the July proposal, Pocan labelled the defense budget “bloated.” Yet at no time did he or his progressive allies discuss the growing national security threats posed by an aggressive Chinese Communist Party, a resurgent Russia and perpetual bad boys Iran and North Korea. An informed discussion of the defense budget must start with the current threats to U.S. security interests, which are significant and trending worse.

A reasonable discussion of the defense budget would also include an assessment of the current state of U.S. Armed Forces and their ability to defend the nation. While still the best in the world, an objective look at our forces reveals readily apparent “cracks” in the foundation. Our nuclear deterrent forces are old and require modernization; we have far fewer Navy ships and Air Force squadrons than our military leaders tell us are necessary, and the Army is using tanks and helicopters first fielded more than a half-century ago

Meanwhile, those who advocate defense cuts overlook the impressive reform efforts taken to improve the efficiency of Pentagon spending. For example, with little fanfare, Congress overhauled the traditional defined benefit pension system for veterans in 2016, introducing a hybrid defined benefit/contribution system.

Last year – again below the public’s radar—the military health care system was re-organized to bring all the separate service systems under a central organization, saving money and delivering better results. And at least a couple of Pentagon leaders—notably former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy – led noteworthy efforts to scour their budgets to find money for new equipment programs rather than just ask for more. Taken together, these efforts dwarf any other reform initiatives undertaken in federal budgeting for years.

Not to say that more cannot be done. After years of being denied the necessary authority to use Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) procedures to eliminate unneeded basing and infrastructure, the Pentagon got so discouraged it quit asking. Yet billions in annual savings could be realized through another round of BRAC. Similarly, each year Congress appropriates hundreds of millions of defense dollars for things the Pentagon does not ask for, such as new helicopters or cancer research.

Progressives try to make hay out of the fact that the Pentagon has yet to pass a full financial audit. Yet no one is under any illusion that passing the audit means the Pentagon can get by with less money. Indeed, just before it imploded, Enron, the very symbol of corporate malfeasance, passed a financial audit. 

Questioning the proper level of defense funding is an appropriate role for Congress, but it must be based on a foundation of facts, not slogans. As noted above, Congress can play a role in helping the Pentagon save money. Armed with the facts, leaders will quickly realize the nation’s security and prosperity rests directly on an adequately funded national defense. Efforts to arbitrarily cut the budget, absent clear national security rationale, are ill-advised.   

Reps. Lee and Pocan would be well-advised to keep their hands off that last slice.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 1/17/21