Cut Pentagon waste, not Social Security

A new talking point for advocates of boosting Pentagon spending above levels required by current law is the misleading claim that absent a budget deal, the department will unfairly take the full brunt of roughly $20 billion in automatic cuts that would take effect on January 15.  This is a misleading characterization of recent budget realities.  In fact, the current resolution that is now funding the government gave the Pentagon an extra $20 billion beyond what current law requires – thereby violating the spending caps required under the Budget Control Act, which remains the law of the land.  Meanwhile, domestic discretionary spending came in well below the caps called for under the law.

So, if a sequester takes effect on January 15, it will merely bring Pentagon spending back into line with the Budget Control Act, not subject it to “extra” cuts.  It is domestic spending that is being subjected to extra cuts under the continuing resolution that is now governing federal outlays.

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The analysis above is premised on the idea that the House-Senate budget committee co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will be unable to come up with an adequate deficit reduction package and sell it to the Congress as a whole.  But what if a deal can be struck?  Where will the revenues and spending cuts come from?

One scenario – consistent with the position taken by arms manufacturers through the Aerospace Industries Association – would be to increase Pentagon spending at the expense of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.  If Republicans hold firm against significant revenue increases, and with domestic discretionary spending already subject to deep cuts, the only place to balance off Pentagon increases would be with reductions in benefits provided by entitlement programs.  But Social Security and Medicare are basic pillars of the social safety net that should be shored up, not cut back, in tough economic times.

To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vehemently denounced this approach.  He called it a “stupid trade” and further said that “We are going to affect entitlements so we can increase defense spending?  Don’t check me for a vote there.  I’m not interested in that.”

Thankfully, Reid’s position is reinforced by the fact that there is plenty of room to keep the Pentagon at the levels required under the Budget Control Act while reshaping the U.S. military to address 21st century threats.  For example, a recent report from the Stimson Center suggested 27 actions that taken together would save $49.5 billion in the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget, $1.8 billion more than would be required under the sequester.  The largest category of savings comes from management reforms – eliminating waste and duplication – followed closely by reductions in force structure, and then by elimination or scaling back of unnecessary weapons programs. 

Broadly speaking, all of the Stimson recommendations can be thought of as ways to eliminate waste.  Duplication is a form of waste.  Keeping more troops than are needed to address the most likely challenges we face is a form of waste.  Buying unnecessary systems like excess Trident submarines and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles is certainly a form of waste.

And once one considers that well over half of the Pentagon’s budget goes to private contractors that have long histories of waste, fraud and abuse, it becomes even more clear that reducing the Pentagon budget by 10 percent or more can be easily achieved.  Whether it is the costs of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter plane more than doubling in the 2000s or the recent scandal in which naval officers allegedly took bribes for letting a contractor engage in massive overbilling, there is firm evidence that stricter monitoring of weapons procurement can save billions.

In short, Congress should ignore the arms industry’s charges of unfair treatment and take a closer look at the ample areas for savings that exist in the current Pentagon budget.  To do otherwise would be budgeting malpractice.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.