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.