The Budget: Where Do We Go from Here?

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By Dan Schlitt

The failure of the super committee to complete their assignments returns the responsibility of budgeting to the members of the House and Senate, where it belongs. What needs to be done now? There is one area of the budget that needs serious attention. If we are to bring the federal budget under control, the largest “entitlement,” Pentagon spending, must be controlled.

In talking about Pentagon spending, we need to recognize the special treatment it is receiving in the current discussion. First, the “reductions” that are talked about are reductions from planned increased spending and not from current spending. This is different from reductions in other departments where they are real reductions from current spending. Second, a significant portion of Pentagon spending is not in the budget at all. Even so, they are given credit for reduction of this off-budget spending as a budget reduction.

There is a chain of thought that the spike in Pentagon spending during the Reagan administration led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. They spent on their military in order to keep up with the U.S. in a way that was unsustainable. This led to fatal neglect of domestic needs and eventual collapse.

We are on the same path. Pentagon spending has steadily increased since the 1980s. Our highways, bridges, sewer systems all give evidence of our neglect of domestic needs. Current Pentagon spending cannot be sustained. Nevertheless, there are those in Congress and elsewhere who want to continue the increased Pentagon spending and even increase it more. This is the road to future collapse.

A Congressional Research Service report on “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2010” lists 261 events since the end of World War II. There is no good count of the number of bases we maintain abroad, but it is around 300. Because of faulty accounting, it is not possible to audit the spending of the Pentagon. This is a pattern of behavior that cannot be continued.

There is a short-term problem and a long-term problem. Both need to be solved to put the budget where it can be supported. In the short term there are cuts that need to be made. Reps. Barney Frank and Walter B. Jones, in cooperation with other members of the House, formed a Sustainable Defense Task Force to examine the current Pentagon budget. The approach of the task force was guided by the observation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “The United States should spend as much as necessary on national defense, but not one penny more.”

Their report, titled “Debts, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward,” presents a series of options that, taken together, could save up to $960 billion between 2011 and 2020. They identify specific savings that could be achieved without compromising the essential security of the United States. Some of these may be included in cuts that have already been agreed to, but there are plenty of others left.

The combination of cuts in Pentagon spending that were agreed to in the bill increasing the borrowing limit added to the cuts that are specified because of the failure of the super committee are roughly the size identified in the report.

In the long term we need a new national strategic narrative. We have been operating with strategies left over from post-World War II, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are unsuited to our present needs. This should be distinguished from the national security strategy, which is currently being revised. We need a new strategic narrative that will frame our national policy decisions on investment, security, economic development and the environment in a way that will sustain our interests in security and prosperity at home and abroad.

This will require serious national discussion. The lack of an agreed narrative is at the root of the inability of Congress to deal with the problems that face our country. We need answers to “Where is the United States going in the world?”, “How can we get there?”, “What are the guiding stars that will illuminate the path along the way?” These answers will define the proper balance between domestic and international spending.

Fortunately, such a discussion has started among a growing group. An example is the paper by two actively serving military authors, Capt. Wayne Porter, USN and Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, USMC, writing under the pseudonym Mr. Y, with the title “A National Strategic Narrative.”

There are other authors, such as Andrew Bacevich, who are examining the same questions. They see the problem in a way similar to Mr. Y. “It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow.” It is time to move “from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence” and to a posture of engagement.

As Mr. Y concludes at the end of their article, we need a narrative that “advocates for an America to pursue her enduring interests in prosperity and security through a strategy of sustainability that is built upon the solid foundation of our national values. As Americans we needn’t seek the world’s friendship or to proselytize the virtues o our society. Neither do we seek to bully, intimidate, cajole, or persuade others to accept our unique values or to share our national objectives. Rather, we will let others draw their own conclusions based upon our actions.”

Table 1. Options for savings in defense

 

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