To many Americans – especially those with right-of-center political leanings – national defense is the single most important priority for the federal government. But is that function compatible with responsible tax and spending policies? According to a recently released study from the free-market-oriented National Taxpayers Union and the R Street Institute, not only can it be compatible, it must be compatible … and fiscally conservative elected officials should more prominently lead the discussion over how best to do so.
The conservative movement in the United States has often been associated with defense "hawks" – after all, significant ramp-ups in military or security-related spending occurred during the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and more recently George W. Bush.
Yet, leaving aside the domestic budget hikes that occurred during some years of these and other Republican presidential terms, conservatives have not been uniformly averse to taking the lead against wasteful, low-priority, or ineffective defense spending. As the report points out, Reagan also appointed the famous Grace Commission, which brought private-sector expertise to bear on fixing Washington's malfunctioning operations. The project unearthed $424 billion in government-wide savings recommendations, about one-fourth of which were attributable to defense programs. Defense secretaries under both the elder and the younger Bushes made decisions to cancel high-profile programs that had become too costly, such as the Navy's A-12 attack aircraft and the Army's Crusader artillery system.
Meanwhile, in Congress, stalwart conservatives have acted to keep Pentagon spending under control, ranging from Dick Armey, R-Texas, who helped to pass military base-closing legislation in 1988, to Tea Party ally Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who helped build a bipartisan coalition in the House to trim defense spending last year.
Citizen groups have not been silent either. In February of this year, a "transpartisan" open letter to Congress, encompassing 21 organizations across the political spectrum, called on lawmakers to "find areas for substantial savings in the Pentagon's bloated budget."
Along those lines, the NTU-R Street report listed 100 specific policy changes, culled from many sources, with a potential for $1.9 trillion of savings over varied periods of time. To be clear, many of these recommendations overlap or even conflict; nor would enacting all of them be desirable. They are presented only to demonstrate a universe of starting points from which policymakers could begin their task of Pentagon budget restructuring. Among them:
- Weapons Systems Reforms: Savings include delaying refurbishment of M-1 tanks (a refurbishment the Army says is unnecessary right now), requiring NATO to pay a greater share of maintaining nuclear bombs in Europe and purchasing a highly capable but less costly alternative to the U.S. Ground Combat Vehicle from Germany.
- Personnel, Compensation, and Benefit Reforms: Service people make tremendous sacrifices and deserve to be compensated accordingly; still, the armed forces are not insulated from the demographic factors affecting civilian entitlement programs. Adjustments to retirement and health care systems for future beneficiaries may be necessary, while nearer-term goals could focus on activities such as reducing the excessive number of flag officers.
- Process Reforms: Bureaucracies and boondoggles should be even less tolerable in the military than in other parts of government, since lives can be at stake as well as dollars. Steps forward include reducing DoD printing costs, combining support services at joint bases and consolidating data centers.
To be sure, many of the suggestions presented in the study are not without controversy and should be carefully considered. Still, the report's timing could not be more important. This month will mark the initiation of furloughs at federal agencies (including civilians with the Department of Defense) in response to the Budget Control Act's "sequestration" provisions that are designed to pare back future projected federal expenditures by about $1 trillion over ten years. Roughly half of those savings are expected to come from defense accounts.
Sequestration has several undesirable features. For one, the Budget Control Act largely avoids the main driver of unsustainable spending growth in future years: entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It is unwise to wall off these programs, comprising three-fifths of the federal budget, from meaningful restraint. Nonetheless, conservatives who believe that government overspending is hazardous to our future prosperity cannot overlook research from the Mercatus Center and others showing that defense expenditures have no special economic "multiplier effect" or "stimulus" properties.
In addition, sequestration is a poor substitute for rational budgeting, which starts from setting priorities and eliminating non-essential items. But the solution is not to abandon sequestration for the status quo (or worse, for tax hikes); rather, it is to meet or beat sequestration's overall reduction amount while pursuing more thoughtful cuts.
The report concludes with seven steps conservatives can take to become more active participants in the ongoing national conversation over defense priorities. One is to reconstitute the bipartisan Congressional Military Reform Caucus, which rose to prominence in the 1980s with help from leaders such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. The modern version of this group could have an expanded purpose, one that would include evaluating the overall fiscal viability of military strategies.
Such a vision could bring into focus the warning of former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who even after his retirement reiterated his contention that the federal government's debt is the single greatest threat to our national security. As the authors of the NTU-R Street report noted:
[S]afeguarding the nation from its enemies confers upon our leaders a special responsibility to balance all aspects of national security in developing a coherent policy. This entails not simply cobbling together a warfighting capability and funding sophisticated weapons. It must also mean differentiating needs from wants, planning for economic as well as military strength, exercising consistent oversight, and ensuring that our defense posture reflects the sustainable, right-sized government conservatives seek.
For the sake of our country and the people who serve it so ably, here's hoping this advice becomes a critical mission for Washington in the months ahead.
Pete Sepp is Executive Vice President for the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union (ntu.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes, limited government, and economic freedom at all levels.
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