Democratic congressman Alan Grayson has proposed a new bill sure to ruffle a few feathers: HR 5353, “The War Is Making You Poor Act,” which would carve out $159 billion of pork from the defense budget and give 90 percent of that money back to taxpayers. The remaining 10 percent would go toward trimming the national debt.
For fiscal conservatives, this should be a welcome piece of legislation. In fact, judging by the many reactions around the Web, it might actually be a semi-popular, bipartisan bill that would at once cut back the national debt and put more tax dollars in Americans’ pockets. Republicans have a chance to lead this effort in the Senate.
Indeed, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn is talking about scaling back the defense budget, signaling what may be the beginning of a sea change in congressional attitudes toward spending on national defense. America already spends far more than the rest of the developed world on its national security. Trimming some pork from that figure would not leave Americans defenseless.
Since President Eisenhower warned Americans of the emerging military-industrial complex a half-century ago, the defense budget has grown in times of peace and times of war. Now it makes up the largest portion of the federal budget’s discretionary spending. In President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, defense spending outpaces all other categories except Social Security. The philosophy of limited government, it would appear, ends abruptly when it comes to national defense, even though there is little evidence that spending $768 billion a year will keep Americans any safer than spending $500 billion. Even after Grayson’s recommended $159 billion in cuts, our defense budget is badly overloaded with pork.
So why do Americans insist on spending so much money on defense? Do we need to spend nearly $1 trillion per year to maintain our security? How much of that money is actually used to keep Americans safe?
One problem is that defense spending is a bipartisan affair. Defense contractors are spread throughout the United States, in both Republican and Democratic districts. These contractors create jobs, and even if the money spent on the defense contracts results in a dead weight, pressure on legislators to keep programs in place is enormous when the cost of cuts translates into job losses. Similar obstacles face politicians seeking to scale back agricultural subsidies or get market reforms past the pharmaceutical lobby.
To compound matters, nobody really knows where all the money goes. The Defense Department may be one of the most egregious examples of a poorly managed government bureaucracy. According to Defense Industry Daily, “the DoD has about 5.2 million inventory items, compared with 11,000 at Wal-Mart or 50,000 at Home Depot stores.” Experts agree that it would be almost impossible to audit the Pentagon. Money is dumped into the system and then disappears for good. We may have the best-trained military in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have the most efficiently funded military.
Another issue impeding defense cuts is so-called emergency spending designated for military projects or national disasters. This emergency funding is funneled into other domestic projects instead, further obscuring the money trail. Emergency and defense spending make it easier for legislators to get pork through the process unnoticed.
Americans provide defense for Europe and much of Asia, allowing Europeans to spend almost nothing on defense while spending lavish amounts on generous entitlement programs. And it is not at all clear that these countries actually want our military bases anymore. Europe has largely put war behind it with the advent of the European Union, and save for the Korean peninsula, Asia is largely moving toward a peaceful, global economy as well. Refocusing our defense priorities into regions that have more direct implications for our own national security, such as Africa and the Middle East, would force Europe to take into account not only the defense of its own soil, but the vast expense associated with that defense. Governments already burdened with extraordinarily high rates of taxation will be forced to make cuts in their welfare programs in order to shore up their defense apparatus.
Not surprisingly, the two wars we are currently embroiled in have also severely raised the cost of defense for American taxpayers. Each troop we send to Afghanistan costs the public $1 million per year. That’s $1 million siphoned out of the U.S. economy and shipped overseas to the mountains of Afghanistan and the Iraqi deserts. As Veronique de Rugy pointed out in 2008, for years many of these costs were hidden, not even included in the Pentagon’s defense budget. This obscures not only the real cost of war, but the costs of all the extraneous programs our tax dollars end up going toward in the name of national defense.
Obviously, with non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups still active, two wars still burning, and uncertainty in North Korea and Iran, having a modern, well-equipped military is important and necessary. But as is the case with all government programs, throwing more and more money at defense doesn’t necessarily equal better results, and may actually have the opposite result. The military-industrial complex erected over the past several decades is keeping defense conservatives from creating a truly responsive and efficient military, capable of handling 21st-century threats.
In the big scheme of things, $159 billion may only be a few drops in a very large bucket, but it’s a good start. Hopefully Democrats like Grayson and Republicans like Coburn can work together to reduce the deficit and enact some of the most important bipartisan legislation we’ve been faced with in a long time, all while putting much-needed money back in taxpayers’ pockets.
– E. D. Kain is a freelance writer and blogger. He writes for the Washington Examiner and at his blog, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.