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Posted at 1:26 PM ET, 02/14/2011

The Defense Department won the future, or at least the budget

By Ezra Klein


One of the big lessons of this budget is that if you work in the federal government, you want Defense Secretary Robert Gates on your side when the budget cuts come around.

The military made out quite nicely in the 2012 budget proposal. The administration is cutting $78 billion from the Defense Department's budget -- known as "security discretionary spending" -- over the next 10 years. That's a bit of a blow, but compare it to the $400 billion they're cutting from domestic discretionary spending -- that's education, income security, food safety, environmental protection, etc. -- over the next 10 years. And keep in mind that the domestic discretionary budget is only half as large as the military's budget. So if there were equal cuts, the military would be losing $800 billion. And you could argue that the politics of that make some sense: Military spending is one of the least popular categories of federal spending.

That's what the Fiscal Commission had wanted to do. "One of the Commission’s guiding principles is that everything must be on the table" they wrote. For that reason, they recommended "equal percentage cuts from both sides."

Nor were they the only ones who thought such cuts possible. The Sustainable Defense Task Force, formed by Barney Frank and Ron Paul (among others) and staffed by a who's who of military policy experts from both sides of the aisle, produced a report (pdf) recommending up to $960 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. These were cuts, the experts said, "that would not compromise the essential security of the United States." Others disagree with that judgment, of course. One of them was Gates, who warned that major cuts in his department would be "catastrophic."

He won. The $78 billion in cuts are the exact $78 billion in cuts Gates recommended. I bet there are more than a few Cabinet secretaries who wish they had that kind of power over the president's recommendations.

It's interesting to think about this in terms of the president's focus on "winning the future." He's been very careful to speak of our challenge as primarily one of bettering ourselves and our country, not fighting our competitors. To win the future, we need to educate our people, rebuild our roads, expand broadband Internet, invest in research and development. And some of those categories are, to be sure, getting a boost in this budget. But only a small one. The R&D budget, for instance, goes up by one percentage point. And many important programs -- like Pell Grants -- are getting shaved down.

If this is a fiscally responsible budget, then cutting $500 billion -- forget $800 billion -- from the Defense Department would've opened room for much more domestic investment. It also could've gone to pay down the debt. As it is, we're pumping that money into sustaining a fighting force that's orders of magnitude larger than anything retained by any other country. The theory implicit in that decision suggests that the fight to win the future might be rather different than the Obama administration is letting on.

Photo credit: White House

By Ezra Klein  | February 14, 2011; 1:26 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Next: Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget blasts the White House


I suspect Obama and his advisers are being driven by a guiding principle that, politically, it's incredibly dangerous for a liberal Democratic President to be seen unilaterally slashing the military's budget. So Obama is sticking solely to the cuts recommended by his Republican defense secretary and letting Congress take the lead on anything beyond that. It's a lot harder to pin the blame squarely on Obama when the cuts he's implementing have all been suggested and endorsed by a Republican.

So politically I think it's a good move in terms of Obama's re-election. Whether it's actually a good thing or not is far more debateable.

Posted by: bigmandave | February 14, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

"If this is a fiscally responsible budget..."

It isn't a fiscally responsible budget.

Posted by: justin84 | February 14, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

What, the Tea Party, Rand Paul, and others who wanted to slash spending at all costs are NOT going to slash the defense budget and take on the MIC too?

Posted by: deconstructiva | February 14, 2011 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Cut taxes. Check.

Curb growth in social spending . Check.

Increase defense spending. No check.

It's Reagan-lite.

Where do changes in spending for Iraq and Afghanistan show up in Pres. Obama's budget?

Posted by: tuber | February 14, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

"As it is, we're pumping that money into sustaining a fighting force that's orders of magnitude larger than anything retained by any other country."

That's the problem with statism, Ezra. The people running the show don't necessarily share your values.

When you grant government the moral authority to forcibly take resources from the citizenry and spend it on whatever it likes, that government might well demand every family of four pony up $11,678 to pay for global empire (assuming population of 311 million Americans in 2011, and using the $908 billion in "security" budgeted for 2011).

Posted by: justin84 | February 14, 2011 2:05 PM | Report abuse

"Where do changes in spending for Iraq and Afghanistan show up in Pres. Obama's budget?"

Table S-11. Obama is budgeting $867.7 billion for overseas contingency operations from 2011-2021, though $450 billion is a placeholder from 2013-2021 to reflect policy uncertainty.

Posted by: justin84 | February 14, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

You could double the Defense budget, and some Americans will still sleep under their beds... so ignore them.
DoD needs to learn to spend smarter, just like all other agencies. Contractors need to be raked over the coals for cost-overruns, weapons systems need much closer review, and we could do with maybe a 1/3 reduction of the officer corps, before we end up with more generals than corporals.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | February 14, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

That is Barak Obama's idea of change. We shall see what the slogan for his 2012 election will be. He has resorted to pandering. Sensible people know that defense spending is our antidote for slashing deficits and national debt. But together with the Tea partiers and Republicans, Mr. Obama now thinks that attacking the federal workforce with all sort of actions as well as other mundane efforts will do the work. We shall see where their thinking will lead them and us.

Obam now strongly beleievs that triangulation, pandering to the conservatives and the business community will assure him of a second term. His thinking might as well be true in 11/2012. Good luck to him in that regard. "You fool me once, shame on you; you fool me twice, shame on me."

Posted by: midas20874 | February 14, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse


Good eye.

Posted by: tuber | February 14, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Anyone still think that the military industrial complex doesn't run the country. When we change our foreign policy and finally admit that we don't need to have over 170 bases in 71 foreign countries and that we are not in charge of who people want to run their own countries then maybe something will change. Until then keep running up those deficits and keep complaining that those people in foreign countries hate us because they are jealous.

Posted by: lleiner | February 14, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I sure am glad to see a fair deal to us citizens. I wasn't worried at all that the tax payer would get stiffed again for the military. It happens every year. After all, how can the American government terrorize the rest of the world if we cut their military budget equally with the domestic budget. They might have to drive last years tank or fly last years airplane or heaven forbid..., they might have to end the war... can't have that now can we.

Posted by: WTFudge | February 14, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Wonder what the percentage of the DoD cuts over that period to the DoD budget is compared to the percentage of cuts versus over discretionary domestic spending is?

Posted by: pielusztcontractor | February 14, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Isn't Gates the one who said we didn't need the F22 because all we're going to be fighting in the future is pirates. That was the main reason he gave for cutting the defense budget wasn't it. Now let's see if memory serves me. The monies that are cut from the defense budget goes to the colleges for leftist programs don't they. Gut the defense budget so we can keep the little leftist students happy. Thats winning the future or weakening this country.

Posted by: houstonian | February 14, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, Your comments are spot on. What is more shocking is Defense, if you add in Homeland Security, Veterans benefits, and other defense and civil services; and at the same time net out FICA's contributions to the budget, you end up with defense expenditures taking up almost 33% of the budget, Health and Human Services coming in at 24%, the Treasury at 17% and all other items at 28% We need to take a look at the biggest item first and vastly reduce it. We could reduce this item real fast if we supported it by charging all net worth of individuals and businesses over $1 million a 2% tax. This would cover the current budget amount of the defense part of the budget as revised as I stated. This tax is justified as all defense protects us and our property. Those in power would therefore want to reduce their taxes. This plan would encouraged them to reduce defense expenditures real fast.

Posted by: ericksrcii | February 14, 2011 5:23 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: 5inchtaint | February 14, 2011 5:42 PM | Report abuse

There are way too many Commands, Generals, Admirals and the like. Also far too many capital ships, especially AirCraft Carriers, and fighter jets that are a vestige of our Cold War mentality. To fight terrorism you need Diplomacy that works, smart weaponry and most of all good intelligence and analysis. A complete rethink of Defense is needed, that will cut, but not totally eliminate overnight, our Cold War arsenal. Everything needs to be justified and there are really no sacred cows. We should be thinking the unthinkable such as eliminating the US Air Force. Very soon most of their traditional fighting capabilities will be morphed into weapon systems that could just as easily and more efficiently be handled by the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Secretary Gates I think knows that Defense needs to be subject to a major pruning but his Departnment moves as slow as molasses and puts any and every obstacle in the way of progress, ably supported by the other players in the military/industrial complex. It is a pity that we do not have a Republican President as the Democrats appear incapable of taking on the Defense lobby.

Posted by: Ex-Mil | February 14, 2011 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Houstonian said "The monies that are cut from the defense budget goes to the colleges for leftist programs don't they. Gut the defense budget so we can keep the little leftist students happy. Thats winning the future or weakening this country."

Actually to fight terrorism we need more interpreters, analysts, thinkers, diplomats, and others who you would probably term 'leftists' just because they are more intellectual than the average Joe.

Strange as it may seem it is possible to be Liberal and a Patriot and just as easy to be Conservative and a traitor. GWB and his ilk over the first 6 years of the Bush administration weakened the US Militarily, Diplomatically, Economically and Socially. Some would suggest that such grave damage to a nation as we endured borders on treason!

Posted by: Ex-Mil | February 14, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

A fighting force robust enough to handle what is thrown at us is one thing, but we have enough troops to fill two war zones with complete replacements at home. This plus the National Guard. One thing we have not learned since the 1970's is that you cannot fight an insurgent style war in areas where the advantage is to the opponent. We had no way of winning in 'Nam. We used locals for support work and they wore armbands on base to show their friendly status, and after the firefight was over and the bodies were gathered, we found those same people and armbands among the dead. We court the Taliban on one day and destroy them and their bases on another day. We partner up with a government headed by a crook and say that it is in our best interest. We do not force that government or any other so situated to grown their own security forces, instead staying on for ten years and finally walking out with no improvement in the situation from the time we started. End the wars, they are gaining us nothing and costing us far, far too much.

Posted by: ronjeske | February 14, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Too bad that Esra didn't read the report they recommended $4 trillion in cuts and that $1 Trillion should come from defense. That's a 75-25 split, but hey this is then WASHPOST and accuracy and balance have never been an issue

Posted by: mandinka2 | February 14, 2011 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Republicans and Democrats share the blame for the deficits and the lack of any coherent plan to get back to solvency.
First, the oil and gas industry basically owns the U.S. government. Consequently, we end up supporting repressive kings and dictators to protect our access to oil. We need a large military budget to protect the oil companies contributing to the trade imbalances each year and the deficit.
Lack of oversight and lack of enforcement of financial regulations allowed the economy to overheat and meltdown. This required unprecedented bailouts. Unpaid for tax cuts and two unfunded wars have led us to the breaking point.
We need someone to step up and stop the gameplying. Both parties are complicit in this situation. Stop the blame game and solve the problem. The American people want straight talk and action.

Posted by: jp1943 | February 14, 2011 8:12 PM | Report abuse

You're right Ezra. Who needs all that defense spending when all that is needed is some soaring rethoric from the One.

Posted by: Herbert1 | February 14, 2011 8:14 PM | Report abuse

We don't need the military all we need is soaring rethoric!

Posted by: Herbert1 | February 14, 2011 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Can we stop using the disgraceful, sleazy sales slogan "winning the future"? It is absolutely polluting our collective mind.

Posted by: truck1 | February 14, 2011 8:59 PM | Report abuse

The best way to save MONEY, and also LIVES, would be for the US to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Posted by: janye1 | February 14, 2011 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Obama now thinks that attacking the federal workforce with all sort of actions as well as other mundane efforts will do the work. We shall see where their thinking will lead them and us.
No attacks needed as long as the federal "workforce" is trimmed by at least 40% and the pay for the remaining lowered at least 45%.

Posted by: steelers01 | February 15, 2011 6:44 AM | Report abuse

I support Klein's proposal to cut defense. But as one expects of a liberal, he wants to cut ONLY defense.

But the four fat cows are social security, medicare, medicaid and the Pentagon. Because these four cows are held sacred, all cuts have to be made in the discretionary part of the budget which is where we invest for the future.

This is a foolish strategy. But one of the four fat cows, defense, is protected by conservatives. Medicaid by liberals. And social security and medicare by both.

So the cows are growing and starving us out of house and home.

Posted by: rjpal | February 15, 2011 7:24 AM | Report abuse

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