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The Pentagon Budget Is Bigger Than It’s Ever Been

Boosting the Pentagon's budget amounts to robbing domestic programs we desperately need.

(Photo: David B. Gleason/Flickr)

Here’s a quiz: Your boss gives you a budget. You ignore it and ask for more money than anyone in your position has ever spent. How long would you expect to keep your job?

That’s basically the scenario that played out with the Obama administration’s recent budget request for the Pentagon. The $534-billion base military budget — which doesn’t even include all that money Washington spends on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria — is bigger, adjusting for inflation, than it’s ever been.

Yes — the Pentagon account is bigger now than even Ronald Reagan ever tried to make it during the height of the Cold War.

So who’s the boss with the power to say no to this budget?

That would be Congress. In 2011 it passed the Budget Control Act, which was intended to impose fiscal discipline on the entire federal government — even at the Pentagon.

So will the boss put his foot down?

Any budget that exceeded caps set by Congress was supposed to trigger a round of automatic across-the-board reductions — cuts to everything. The Obama administration’s request for the Pentagon busts those limits by some $38 billion.

Unfortunately, Congress has been less responsible, in some ways, than the Pentagon itself.

In a nod to cutting waste, the Obama administration has proposed such measures as delaying repairs to an aircraft carrier, closing unneeded bases, and eliminating redundant health care spending for the military brass.

Congress has so far said no to all of these savings, posturing all the while about its alarm over the deficit.

The budget busters — that is, the Obama administration and the “defense hawks” in Congress who want to shovel more money into the Pentagon — could still fail. They’re at odds with the lawmakers who see military increases as robbing money from domestic programs they believe in, as well as the ones who see shrinking government at all costs as their main job.

I wish they’d all talk more about investing in America now that the post-9/11 wars are winding down.

With less money going into Afghanistan, for example, Washington can step up our investments in infrastructure, health, and education. That kind of spending makes the whole economy more productive.

Recent economic growth is putting such investments back on the table after years of belt-tightening. Plowing that money back into the Pentagon would mean more scrounging for scraps to fund everything else.

But really, the boss is us. Let’s make our priorities clear to the people we elected.

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Miriam Pemberton

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She co-chairs the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

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