With a new Congress with a House controlled by Republicans who have trumpeted deficit reduction as one of their central priorities, it would be logical to expect that there might be trimming in one of the largest and most bloated areas of US government spending: the nation's $700bn military budget. However, the realities of Washington, DC are different than the rhetoric. While spending for the Iraq war should be decreasing, as planned, in coming years, recently released budget proposals by both Democrats and Republicans show that base levels for Pentagon funding continue to rise.
If you have been following the headlines, you might be under a different impression. The debate over defence cuts has intensified this year, as a wave of Tea Party-backed legislators, including Senators Tom Coburn (Oklahoma), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) and Rand Paul (Kentucky), have insisted that everything will be "on the table" when it comes to reducing government spending. As the Guardian reported, supporters of Paul "jeered and booed the former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld" at the recent CPAC convention, bringing long-simmering tensions within the Republican party into the open.
So, why isn't this resulting in a smaller Pentagon budget?
Rank-and-file revolt among conservatives has made some difference. On 16 February, 47 freshman Republicans in the House broke with their party's leadership and voted to cut funding for an expensive alternative engine for the F-35 fighter jet. This is an item which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called "an unnecessary and extravagant expense", but which many veteran lawmakers have nevertheless fought to keep alive. Beyond this, the New York Times reported that Republicans "agreed to include $16bn in military cuts in this year's spending bill, which is being debated on the floor this week".
Yet, in truth, such reporting falls for a sleight of hand performed by the department of defence. Much of the discussion of "cutting" the military budget in Washington, DC does not actually amount to cuts, but rather, enacting smaller increases than might have otherwise happened. While the Republican budget for 2011 put forward by Representative Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) gives the Pentagon less than its full request, the funding levels it puts forward would still mean $8bn increase in the department's base budget – raising it from $526bn to $533bn. This does not include supplemental funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does it count money for military expenses – such as nuclear weapons – that fall outside the Pentagon's remit.
Moreover, the base defence budget is likely to go up even further in 2012, despite administration vows to tighten its belt. Possibly seeking to preempt critics, in early January, Secretary Gates proposed $78bn in spending cuts, and $100bn in cost-saving measures for the Pentagon. His proposed savings, however, are spread out over several years, and are offset by increases in other areas of defence spending. In the end, Gates's "reduced" budget request for 2012 still comes to $553bn, the largest in real terms since the second world war.
There's considerable precedent for the failure of elected officials to reduce spending on the military. In early 2009, Gates appeared before Congress to propose cuts to expensive, out-of-date, and behind-schedule weapons programs, urging members to "rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole". The backlash from lawmakers was immediate. As Reuters reported, "it took just minutes" before a group of senators, including Jeff Sessions (Republican, Alabama), Joe Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) and Mark Begich (Democrat, Alabama), had penned a letter to President Obama condemning the proposed $1.4bn cut in the missile defence program, arguing that it would leave the country vulnerable to attack by North Korea.
While politicians in Washington, DC tend to keep their public statements focused on national defence, rather than on preserving jobs in their districts, they are resolute in making sure that military production facilities at home are not on the chopping block. Defense contractors are explicit in making job creation a part of the appeal for continued funding, particularly for embattled weapons systems. In 2009, defense expert William Hartung noted, "As part of its campaign to secure additional funding for the F-22 Raptor combat aircraft, the Lockheed Martin Corporation has asserted that 95,000 jobs are at stake if the program is terminated after the Pentagon's preferred production run of 183 planes." Such campaigns have successfully delayed the phasing-out of pricey weapons systems for years – long after the Pentagon itself has deemed them superfluous.
There's a peculiar irony here: even as Republicans rail against Obama's stimulus and reject the prospect of government-supported job programs, many – including powerful committee heads – hold military employment in their districts as sacrosanct. Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, for instance, attacked White House stimulus spending, arguing, "Congressional Democrats and the administration continue to insist that we can spend our way out of this recession and create jobs, but the numbers just don't add up." Yet in 2010 alone, he secured $24.2m in defence earmarks for his district, which includes the city of Palmdale, known as the "aerospace capital of America", where over 9,000 employees rely on Pentagon largesse for their jobs. Because contractors, too, are Machiavellian in manipulating Washington politics, commonly spreading production of major weapons systems over dozens of states to safeguard political support, McKeon's behavior is hardly the exception.
That Congress is now slowing increases in defence spending can be seen as a small measure of progress. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that our elected officials intend to consider serious cuts to the military as part of their budget debate. Instead, what they have "on the table" is continued expansion of a seemingly insatiable military-industrial complex.
With research assistance provided by Eric Augenbraun