WASHINGTON — Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is an eccentric candidate, but he has a couple of good ideas. One of them is this: Defense spending is not sacrosanct, and the military’s budget should be cut.
If Paul holds onto to that idea, it may well be worthwhile to watch him campaign for the U.S. Senate. There are very few Republicans (Paul’s father, the libertarian-leaning GOP Congressman from Texas, is among the few) who want to cut the Pentagon’s budget.
Quite frankly, there aren’t enough Democrats who stand against the military-industrial complex, either. Just last week, the House passed a defense spending bill that includes $485 million to develop a jet fighter engine that the Pentagon doesn’t even want. While supporters of a second engine model for the F-35 claim it would increase competition among defense contractors, the only thing likely to increase is the cost.
Nearly fifty years after Dwight Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex, it still manages to hold its few critics at bay, to thwart the designs of budget-cutters and to exert a peculiar pull on the American popular imagination. Budget-busting weapons programs and $600 toilet seats simply don’t incite the wrath of voters in the same way as an unmarried mother buying groceries with food stamps.
In fiscal year 2009, according to the Office of Management and Budget, defense spending accounted for 23 percent of the federal budget, more than Medicare/Medicaid (19 percent), more than Social Security (20 percent) and more than the hated bank bail-out (four percent.) Any serious effort to address the deficit, then, will have to include the Pentagon. (See the chart below.)
But the Pentagon usually gets a pass — drawing steady criticism only from the fringe on the right (the Pauls) and the left (U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.) Americans have bought into the false idea that the military needs super-sophisticated, hyper-expensive technology to keep us safe from the enemy — even if the enemy is using civilian airliners and crudely-made car bombs. The war against al-Qaeda and its ally, the Taliban, is currently being waged largely with ground troops and Predator drones, which are manufactured at a tiny fraction of the cost of stealth fighter jets.
Still, the U.S. spends nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. (See second chart at bottom.) The spending continues unabated partly because defense contractors have done a masterful job of turning weapons-production into a massive jobs program spread across several Congressional districts.
In a deep recession, with unemployment still hovering near ten percent, a federally-sponsored, taxpayer-funded jobs program isn’t a bad idea. But taxpayers reject the notion of a modern Works Progress Administration (WPA)— unless it’s run by Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
When Congress was trying to save the F-22, manufactured by Lockheed and assembled in Marietta, Ga., supporters didn’t even try to hide their job-related motives. As U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The F-22 has played a great role in Cobb. It has meant a lot to families and to the local economy. I hate to see something that people have spent their career working on just fade away when we still feel that we need more of those planes.”
But Obama and Gates didn’t believe the Pentagon needed more of those planes, which they considered a Cold War relic, so the F-22 was finally killed despite a massive lobbying effort. Still, Georgia’s Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, were able to get millions in defense-related earmarks for the state added to defense appropriations.
The Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2010, passed last October, came to a whopping $680 billion, $16 billion more than Obama requested. The House defense bill voted on last week totaled $726 billion. That’s insane — and unsustainable.