The cuts to national security spending in the recent deal to raise the debt ceiling have attracted significant criticism from conservative commentators who argue that these cuts are unexpected, unprecedented, and threatening to our national security. In reality, however, any reductions in military spending are likely to be moderate, at best.
The Obama administration estimates the bill will reduce total security spending by $420 billion over the next 10 years, with $350 billion or just more than 80 percent of those cuts coming from the Pentagon. But few of these cuts are specifically mandated by the bill.
The debt ceiling deal does set hard caps on security spending for the next two years, limiting the security budget to $684 billion in 2012 and $686 billion in 2013. These reductions, however, amount to less than 1 percent of the security budget, which currently stands at $688.5 billion. The $350 billion figure assumes that Congress will voluntarily maintain similar caps on security spending through 2021 in order to meet the bill’s $1.5 trillion target for overall spending reductions. Given Congress’s terrible track record on reining in defense spending over the past decade, the likelihood that a significant portion of these cuts will never materialize remains high.
Further, due to the debt ceiling deal’s broad definition of “security spending”—which encompasses funding for the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and State, as well as the country’s intelligence agencies—Congress could potentially keep security spending within the caps without touching DOD spending at all, instead slashing the budgets of the other, already underfunded “security” agencies.
Doing so would continue to overstate the proper role for the military within our foreign policy. After an unprecedented streak of 13 consecutive years of rising defense budgets, the United States is now spending more on defense than at any time since World War II and almost as much as the rest of the world combined. As the administration, Congress, and the Pentagon work to make good on the debt ceiling deal, they should focus on responsibly reducing wasteful military spending in a way that bolsters our economy without endangering our national security.
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