Tad DeHaven

Last week I discussed the tendency for policymakers to treat the Pentagon like a giant jobs program. It was prompted by an article from the Associated Press on members of Congress shoving unwanted upgraded Abrams tanks down taxpayers’ throats because retooling tanks sustains jobs back in the district. As it turns out, former Reagan budget director David Stockman touches on the Abrams tank situation in his new book, The Great Deformation. 

In Chapter 5, “Triumph of the Warfare State,” Stockman gives an account of the behind-the-scenes dealings that resulted in the massive military buildup during the Reagan administration. Stockman says political calculations—and not “one scintilla of bottoms-up program detail or even a single hour of professional analysis”—drove the new Reagan administration to champion 7 percent (real) growth in defense spending every year for five years (1982-1986), and from an already elevated level. According to Stockman, the “7 percent real growth top line” was a “blank check” for the Pentagon to go on a spending binge, much to the pleasure of the military-industrial complex. 

From p. 74: 

No fresh start or strategically coherent defense plan was ever developed by the Reagan administration. This immense, content-free “top line” was simply backfilled by the greatest stampede of Pentagon log-rolling and budget aggrandizement by the military-industrial complex ever recorded. 

In a process that went on week after week for the better part of a year, the huge swaths of empty budget space under the new defense “top line” were converted into more and more of virtually everything that inhabited the Pentagon’s vasty deep. Much of it, which had languished for years and decades on the wish lists of the brass and military contractors, now got funded without much ado. 

Tad DeHaven

Tad DeHaven is a budget analyst at the Cato Institute. Previously he was a deputy director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget. DeHaven also worked as a budget policy advisor to Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).