The looming fight over increasing the debt limit raises multiple questions, from whether it will lead to a government shutdown to the potential impact on the United States’ credit rating. But those aren’t the only potential impacts. The resolution of the issue might — emphasizing might — have an impact on Pentagon spending, a potential outcome that has evoked howls of protest from members in good standing of the military-industrial complex.
The concerns are rooted in the political machinations that accompanied the contentious election of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker of the House. In exchange for the votes of holdouts like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), McCarthy pledged to seek a freeze in discretionary spending at FY 2022 levels for the budget that will be under consideration this year. If the freeze were to be applied equally across the board, it would result in a reduction in Pentagon spending of $75 to $100 billion from the levels for Fiscal Year 2023 signed into law late last year. But perhaps boosters of ever higher Pentagon budgets should breath a sigh of relief.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) took to twitter to claim that Pentagon spending was never discussed during the deliberations over demanding a budget freeze, and that “in fact, there was broad agreement spending cuts should focus on NON-DEFENSE discretionary spending.” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) took a different tack, suggesting that defense should be on the table. Jordan then proceeded to suggest two potential areas for cuts — defunding the Pentagon’s alleged “woke agenda” and trimming the top heavy composition of the military ranks, by which perhaps he meant too many generals and other top-ranking officials relative to rank-and-file military personnel. These actions together would likely save a small fraction of percentage point of the $858 billion budget for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons work at the Department of Energy. In short, Jordan’s notion of putting the Pentagon “on the table” is not serious, and could even be considered laughable.
Some other members have joined Roy in stating the obvious — that most of, it not all, of the cuts involved in their proposed freeze would have to come from domestic programs. But as Andrew Lautz of the National Taxpayers’s Union has noted, a 5% increase in Pentagon spending in the context of the freeze would mean that domestic programs would have to be subjected to cuts of over 23% to make the math work. This is a non-starter given the thin Republican margin in the House and Democratic control of the Senate.
So what are we really talking about here? It’s conceivable that the rough and tumble of budgetary politics in Congress could lead to some trimming of the Pentagon budget, — or at least a reduction in whatever increases the Pentagon and hawks in Congress might propose this year — but it seems unlikely that it would be by much given that a Democratic-controlled Congress just got done adding $45 billion to the Pentagon’s FY 2023 budget proposal.
The Pentagon budget can be cut without damaging U.S. security, and possibly even improving it if the right choices are made. But the game of budgetary chicken contemplated by the Freedom Caucus is extremely unlikely to produce anything approaching such a result. What is needed is a thorough rethinking of the Pentagon’s “cover-the-globe” military strategy, which calls for potential conflict with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and terror groups worldwide. It is an object lesson in failing to make choices among competing priorities. And it is likely to squeeze out spending on addressing major non-military threats like climate change, pandemics, and global inequality. We can have a better defense for less, but a budget freeze is not the way to get there.