Commentary: Why is the Defense Department immune from budget cuts?

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The only thing we can say for certain about ongoing budget talks between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is that neither man will walk away from the table completely satisfied.

An agreement on the debt ceiling and future budgets was finally struck over the weekend between Biden and McCarthy. The deal would lift the debt ceiling past the 2024 presidential election and cap discretionary spending over the next two years. If this framework sounds familiar, that’s because it is; President Obama and House Republicans passed a similar fiscal arrangement, known as the Budget Control Act, in August 2011, which aimed to reduce U.S. deficits by $2.1 trillion over ten years by slashing government spending across the board.

The big difference between that larger accord and the one Biden and McCarthy are working on, however, is that U.S. defense spending was included in the Obama-era caps (although lawmakers found ways of avoiding caps on defense partly by relying on a wartime fund called the Overseas Contingency Operations account). From what we know, Biden and McCarthy’s terms would insulate the U.S. military from whatever spending freezes are instituted.

In other words, while the rest of the U.S. government has to make do, the Defense Department — the definition of an unwieldy bureaucracy, which hasn’t even passed an audit — can get on with business as usual.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. With the exception of some progressive and fiscally minded lawmakers, the defense budget is viewed as sacrosanct on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. With all of Donald Trump’s braggadocio about giving the U.S. military the heftiest military budgets in history, the defense budget has ballooned under Biden.

Much of this can be chalked up to Congress adding more funds than what the White House requests. Last December, lawmakers tacked on an additional $48 billion to finance weapons procurement and research projects the Pentagon didn’t even ask for. The same thing happened in March 2022, when the Appropriations Committee injected another $30 billion above what the White House called for.

It’s highly likely a similar dynamic will be at play this year. In March, Biden proposed an $886 billion national defense budget for fiscal year 2024, which in real terms is the largest in U.S. history. Yet even that massive request was blasted as “woefully inadequate” by defense hawks in Congress, who cite amorphous national security dangers to justify steeper hikes. This, despite the fact that the U.S. now spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined (and eight of those countries are either U.S. allies or partners).

With all of this in mind, the question must be asked: Why is U.S. defense spending given such special treatment? Why does every other agency have to make priorities while the Pentagon can roll around in a money pit and buy legacy weapons systems that the building’s own budget and policy officials don’t even want?

There’s simply no good reason for it.

There are, however, plenty of reasons why the U.S. defense budget could use a trimming. The most pressing concerns the country’s finances. The U.S. national debt today is a gargantuan $31.4 trillion (technically speaking, the country has already breached the limit, but Treasury Department accounting maneuvers have been keeping the country from default since January).

Because touching entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is a nonstarter for most in Washington, the only way the U.S. can realistically chip away at the mountain of debt is by reforming the discretionary side of the budget, which in 2022 made up 27% of the U.S. government’s entire spending. But this hard task becomes even harder, if not impossible, if you refuse to bring defense into the picture.

In other words: If you’re serious about tackling the debt, defense — which makes up nearly half of all discretionary spending — has to be on the table.

Another reason concerns the state of the world and how the U.S. chooses to operate in it. We are frequently told by political and policy elites that the world is essentially on fire. Foreign policy experts write warnings about how the rules-based international order is collapsing. High-profile pundits talk about adversaries filling vacuums, and combatant commanders come to Congress begging for more resources because China, Russia, Iran, or some other adversary is undermining U.S. power or weakening U.S. deterrence.

In reality, however, the U.S. remains in a very secure and advantageous geopolitical position. It has the great fortune of living next to neighbors that in the grand scheme are friendly (albeit with Mexico, at times difficult) and don’t have wider territorial ambitions. The U.S. economy, inflation aside, remains quite strong and continues to attract talent from all over the world.

No other great power competitor, not China and certainly not Russia, has the number of allies and partners the U.S. does. The U.S. dollar remains the world’s paramount currency, which affords Washington significant leverage.

To the extent the U.S. has geopolitical problems, they are largely of its own making. Driven by a need to preserve a U.S.-dominated global order and a tendency to view international relations as an epic, existential contest between right and wrong, the U.S. often overextends itself — or worse, backs itself into wars that atrophy the U.S. military and undermine U.S. power. Indeed, one of the arguments used by those in support of big defense budgets today is to rebuild from the exhausting counterinsurgency wars of the past.

There was always a faint hope that a debt ceiling crisis would finally force policymakers to acknowledge the obvious. Perhaps that was too optimistic.



Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.