Is defense spending really on the chopping block?

If you take a White House press release on face value, the debt ceiling negotiations produced an immediate cap on discretionary spending, which will reduce the deficit by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years. That $1 trillion reduction would be balanced between defense and non-defense spending.

The actual legislation, however, does not guarantee that these cuts will be balanced. In fact, the discretionary spending caps established in the first stage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 will reduce spending by just a few billion dollars in the 2012 and 2013 “security category,” which, in addition to the Department of Defense (DoD), includes the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the intelligence community management account and international affairs. Thus, if appropriators and leadership so choose, the DoD could face no reductions in spending to meet these caps. Beyond 2013, the cap is on total discretionary spending -- meaning all of the cuts needed to stay under this could come from outside the security category.

“Appropriators will determine each year how money is allocated under the cap,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for John Boehner, told The Hill, which confirmed with a House Appropriations source that “there is no specific DOD-only number in the bill for any year, and not for the 10-year span.”

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or the so-called Super Committee, is in the driver’s seat to reduce wasteful defense spending. The Super Committee is tasked with proposing at least $1.2 trillion in reductions —- but is not required to cut any national security spending.

The only concrete threat to the undisciplined DoD budget is if the Super Committee cannot agree on the full $1.2 trillion or their plan is not enacted by Congress by January 15, which would automatically trigger DoD spending reductions  up to $600 billion.

In truth, these are not actually cuts in the sense that most of us think of cutting spending by, well, actually spending less. These are reductions in what the U.S. is projected to spend on defense, and, based on these projections, defense spending is expected to increase by more than $100 billion annually in the next ten years. Thus, these are really just reductions in the increase of defense spending.

In the end, all of the hype about the threat of defense cuts belies the fact that trimming defense spending by $600 billion over ten years is not only a practical, rather painless number (some have projected cutting far more), but also can be done in a way that actually reduces waste and improves the effectiveness of our military operations. POGO and Taxpayers for Common Sense have recommendations for nearly $600 billion in reductions in wasteful national security spending that we hope the Super Committee will closely examine. There are others who likewise have done good work on sensible reductions.

If the Super Committee is split along partisan lines and can’t reach a deal the DoD will have to cut spending -- resulting in a rare moment when Congressional gridlock actually benefits taxpayers. But, if this Committee wants any credit for making real improvements over the status quo, they will take a serious look at profligate DoD spending and start trimming.

Ben Freeman is the Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) national security fellow. Angela Canterbury is POGO’s public policy director. The Project On Government Oversight is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms.

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