If your family spent a majority of its disposable income on groceries and you were looking to tighten your belt, you might start by taking a scalpel to your grocery budget.
If Republicans are serious about reining in our out-of-control federal spending, they ought to start with the spending item that takes up 56 percent of our discretionary spending: defense. Conservatives, in their much-needed attacks on federal overspending, too often give the Pentagon a pass. For the budget of fiscal year 2011, taxpayers are spending $708 billion on defense.
Maybe it seems unpatriotic to criticize our military spending. Maybe it seems like you’re not supporting the troops to look for defense cuts. But as a tribute to our soldiers, sailors and airmen this Memorial Day weekend, let’s start dismantling the military-industrial complex that saps our wealth without helping our troops.
This week, conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., encouraged the president’s Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission to freeze defense spending and institute other reforms aimed at eventually cutting the military budget.
“Total Pentagon spending is higher today in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any time during the last 60 years,” Coburn wrote. More poignantly, he added, “America’s defenses have been decaying, despite — perhaps even because of — increasing budgets.”
More military spending might be yielding a weaker military. This may sound absurd, but it shouldn’t — not to conservative ears, at least.
Conservatives understand that big government is, very often, the problem. Bloated bureaucracies are counterproductive. You don’t solve problems by throwing money at them. Government spending attracts waste, fraud and abuse. And when you put fallible humans in charge of spending huge amounts of other people’s money, cronyism and corruption ensue.
Conservatives and libertarians don’t oppose welfare because they resent helping poor people or resist foreign aid out of disregard for the world’s poor. We want a smaller Health and Human Services budget in part because we think it will yield better health and leave humans better served.
These arguments also apply to defense spending.
We are spending more and getting less. Coburn wrote: “As the defense budget has grown over time, our forces have shrunk. Secretary [Robert] Gates noted in a recent speech that current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as their equivalents during the 1980s and we have fewer of them.”
Part of the problem is the ballooning bureaucracy. “The Department of Defense,” Coburn wrote, “has far too many headquarters, staff, and bureaucracy that merely create more work for subordinate units.”
Another part of the problem is the military-industrial complex. Conservatives now realize how the big banks gave us the bailouts, Big Pharma gave us health care “reform” and a gang of green bandits is angling to rip us off through a climate-change boondoggle. Well, the defense contractors have been playing this game for decades.
Huge corporations, headquartered in Northern Virginia, depend mostly or entirely on the U.S. military for their profits. Bureaucrats and congressional staffers spend other people’s money while protected from strict scrutiny by the veil of national security.
Defense contractors have spent more than a half-billion dollars on lobbying since 2006. Former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., represents United Technologies, as does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s former chief of staff. Linda Daschle, wife of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., lobbies for Boeing, General Electric and Lockheed Martin. Jim Dyer, former chief of staff for the House Appropriations Committee, claims Lockheed, GE and General Dynamics as clients.
To the staffers and politicians, these wealthy lobbyists serve as a walking reminder: If you play ball, you can get the sort of cushy job I have in a few years.
Politicians also use defense contracts as job programs — as pork. This robs from taxpayers, but it also robs from our troops.
We need a military, and we’re at war, so we can’t completely avoid opportunities for corruption in defense. But we can minimize them. Coburn proposes some procurement reforms, but conservatives know that the best reform is often a pay cut. Republicans ought to call for some retrenchment at the Pentagon.
Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner’s lobbying editor.