Conservatives Demand No Defense Cuts at All Costs

But Cutting Everything Else Is OK

Right-wing budget cutters are obsessed with keeping high levels of defense spending while taking the ax to other investments critical to America’s global power, writes Peter Juul.

Former Bush administration Defense Department comptroller Dov Zakheim would rather the United States go into default on its debt than have the defense budget cut beyond the president's proposals. (AP/Joe Marquette)
Former Bush administration Defense Department comptroller Dov Zakheim would rather the United States go into default on its debt than have the defense budget cut beyond the president's proposals. (AP/Joe Marquette)

Decline is a choice” is the mantra many conservatives are chanting to oppose any cuts to the defense budget as part of a deficit reduction deal. Reducing defense spending, they say, will drastically imperil the security of the United States even though defense spending is higher in real terms than at any time since World War II. But they are fine with cutting investments in infrastructure, education, and science and technology that make us a stronger nation.

Conservative members of Congress have vowed to “draw a line in the sand” against defense budget cuts, while former Bush administration Defense Department comptroller Dov Zakheim would rather the United States go into default than see the defense budget trimmed beyond the president’s proposals. The common conservative belief, summarized by Max Boot, is that “eviscerating” the defense budget will do the same for “the role of the United States in world affairs.”

At the same time, many of these same conservatives refuse to raise taxes to pay for their priorities. They are insisting taxes for the wealthiest Americans must remain low and defense spending remain high while gutting social insurance programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and forgoing necessary investments in America’s future. Even House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) draconian cuts-only plan is drawing fire from hardcore conservatives for its failure to cut social programs as savagely as they prefer.

The importance to America’s international standing of basic investments in America’s people, its infrastructure, and science and technology has long been recognized—even by Republicans. President Dwight Eisenhower noted in 1956: “We must be strong at home if we are going to be strong abroad. We understand that. So we want to be strong at home in our morale or in our spirit, we want to be strong intellectually, in our education, in our economy and, where necessary, militarily.”

What’s more, President Eisenhower recognized that there were trade-offs between military spending and investments in the domestic sources of American power. “The cost of one modern heavy bomber,” he argued in 1953, “is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete highway.”

Conservatives planned to eviscerate the domestic sources of America’s international power even before the debt ceiling began bearing down on the nation. The budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this year would have devastated future investments in critical sectors such as education and training (a 53 percent cut from 2012 to 2021), transportation infrastructure (a 37 percent cut), and science and technology R&D (a 28 percent cut). These investments in human capital, essential infrastructure, and basic science are the foundation of America’s international strength. Without them the massive military establishment conservatives demand would not be possible.

But conservatives are going even further in their demands for cuts during the debt ceiling talks. Speaker Boehner’s plan—itself too moderate for many conservatives—goes even beyond the Ryan budget proposals in eating America’s seed corn. It would require $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years in nondefense discretionary programs—the budgetary category that includes necessary investments such as education, infrastructure, and science research—before requiring an additional $1.8 trillion in immediate cuts from either social insurance or safety net programs—all without raising any taxes a penny.

These ruthless cuts would have serious consequences. Speaker Boehner’s plan, says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history."

But Speaker Boehner’s cuts still don’t satisfy the more extreme conservatives. They demand a constitutional amendment to cap total federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product that would do even greater damage to the domestic sources of American power.

The Center for American Progress’s Michael Linden and Michael Ettlinger show that making only minimal cuts to the defense budget and popular, necessary social insurance programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—would require a two-thirds cut in all remaining spending to meet these extreme conservatives’ goal.

What’s worse, some conservatives seem prepared—if not eager—to let the country go into default in order to rewrite the nation’s social contract on their own extreme conservative terms. Others such as Zakheim and William Kristol appear to be willing to do so if it prevents defense budget cuts. But plunging the United States into default would further exacerbate our current economic troubles.

Even worse, as Paul Krugman points out, “Nobody knows what a U.S. default would do to the world financial system, which is built on the presumption that U.S. government debt is the ultimate safe asset.”

In other words, default risks fatally undermining America’s exceptional role in the global economy at a time when rising economic powers such as China, India, and Brazil are demanding a greater say in the operations of world economy.

Conservatives are right: Decline is a choice. But it’s not a matter of spending huge sums on defense in perpetuity. It’s a matter of investing in the human capital, infrastructure, and scientific research that underpins America’s international strength. At a time when the United States is facing increasing economic competition overseas, disemboweling these down payments on America’s capacity for future innovation and economic strength would only serve to guarantee a lesser future for our country.

It’s conservatives who are choosing decline by gutting funding for these critical sectors and dismantling vital social insurance programs to maintain an overly large military establishment and ensure the wealthiest Americans don’t have to pay their fair share.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst