Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Historical Defense Cuts and Deficit Reduction
Press Release

RELEASE: Historical Defense Cuts and Deficit Reduction

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Washington, D.C.—Today, the release of the Center for American Progress brief “A Historical Perspective on Defense Budgets: What We Can Learn from Past Presidents About Reducing Spending,” and the accompanying chart comparing topline defense spending by president, demonstrates the ability of past presidents to reduce the deficit while sustaining a defense budget that preserves American military strength. It contrasts those spending trends with the alarming defense budget growth experienced during the George W. Bush administration, as well as President Barack Obama’s first few defense budgets.

The question currently facing Congress and President Obama—how much to spend on defense in times of large deficits or in the final years of a war—is not new. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had to identify reasonable levels of defense expenditures as the United States transitioned from war spending to peacetime budgets, while President Ronald Reagan needed to control defense spending in the face of rising deficits. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush confronted both scenarios at once, like President Obama today.

The chart showing topline defense spending by president demonstrates:

  • Requesting fiscally responsible defense budgets has historically been a bipartisan effort
  • Previous spending reductions have not compromised U.S. national security
  • The Obama administration has the opportunity to achieve large savings from sensible reductions in the defense budget because both its total and baseline budgets are at unprecedented levels.

Total U.S. defense spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) has reached levels not seen since World War II, when the United States had 12 million people under arms and waged wars on three continents. Moreover, the U.S. share of global military expenditures has jumped from about one-third to about one-half in this same period. Though some of this growth can be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the baseline or regular defense budget has also grown in real terms to $100 billion above what the nation spent on average during the Cold War. The fiscal year 2012 budget request of $553 billion is approximately the same level as Ronald Reagan’s FY 1986 budget.

As a result of this “gusher” of defense spending—to quote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—Pentagon leaders have not been forced to make the hard choices between competing programs as they traditionally have. And the ballooning defense budget played a significant role in turning the budget surplus projected a decade ago into a massive deficit that forces the U.S. government to borrow 43 cents of every dollar it spends. As the nation attempts to bring this massive deficit—which chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen calls the greatest threat to our security—under control, leaders from both parties recognize that these unprecedented levels of defense expenditures cannot be maintained.

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To speak with Lawrence Korb, please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202-481-8181 or [email protected].