Steve Chapman
Politicians often rail against government spending, except when it goes to the military. Conservatives believe there is no such thing as too much defense spending, and liberals don't argue, for fear of being labeled appeasers. So when there is talk of the two parties agreeing to cut the Pentagon budget, it sounds like a monumental change.

But probably not. It's a good thing that defense, which accounts for roughly a fifth of all federal outlays, is no longer considered immune to the need for frugality. But both supporters and opponents have a stake in portraying any trims as far more significant than they really are.

The Obama administration reportedly has decided to boost its planned defense cuts from $400 billion over the next 12 years to as much as $700 billion. That sounds like a lot -- considering that the earlier, smaller figure had sparked furious objections.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned it would be "a grievous mistake" that would someday "be measured in American lives lost." Mitt Romney, in line with most other presidential candidates, insisted "we should not reduce our commitment to national security."

Some Republicans in Congress may be prepared to subject defense spending to the sort of scrutiny applied elsewhere. But if you think the tea party favorites will demand serious fiscal discipline, you are in for a disappointment.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's heralded budget plan would, according to Cato Institute analyst Christopher Preble, leave the Pentagon "essentially unscathed." Michele Bachmann wrote recently, "Blaming our budgetary woes on the military is reckless and misinformed."

She doesn't seem to have noticed that while discretionary domestic outlays have been flat in inflation-adjusted terms over the past decade, military expenditures have not. The discretionary defense budget, after accounting for inflation, is 80 percent bigger this year than it was in 2001 -- and 33 percent bigger than it was just five years ago.

Assuming the president and Congress agree to the cuts being discussed -- no sure thing -- it would still be larger in 2016 than it was for most of George W. Bush's presidency. It would also be more, in real terms, than it was at the height of President Ronald Reagan's military buildup, when we faced a hostile nuclear superpower in the form of the Soviet Union.

It might make sense to provide such gargantuan sums if we were merely trying to keep up with our enemies. In reality, the United States devotes more money to defense than the next 17 countries combined. We spend six times as much as the Chinese, who come in second overall.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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