On Wednesday night the House passed the debt ceiling deal reached by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and the winner is – the Pentagon!
While the rest of the federal discretionary budget is slated to be frozen at roughly this year’s level, the Pentagon and related spending on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy will be exempted from the freeze. Military spending will be set at $886 billion, the amount requested by the Biden administration for fiscal year 2024. This represents an historic high – hundreds of billions of dollars more than at the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the height of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation.
An analysis of the new agreement by the Wall Street Journal indicates that if the deal goes through, the Pentagon and veteran’s spending – neither of which will be subject to the freeze – will top $1 trillion, while all of the remaining discretionary programs will be left to split $637 billion. This will mean that public health, environmental protection, nutrition, housing, transportation and most of the other major functions of the government will have to fight over less than 40% of the discretionary budget. This won’t be nearly enough to account for inflation, much less meet the many unmet needs of the majority of American households.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We are dramatically overspending on the Pentagon relative to our genuine defense needs. The challenges posed by China are primarily political and economic, not military. And on the military front the United States spends about three times as much on its military as China does, and has major allies in East Asia that can shoulder part of the burden of deterring Beijing, from Australia to Japan to South Korea. The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads is 13 times as large as China’s, and the U.S. Navy has far more firepower. If China is the Pentagon’s “‘pacing threat,” it’s time to slow the pace of America’s military buildup and focus on other urgent national needs.
Ultimately it would be up to the Pentagon and the military services to decide how to implement a budget freeze, but there are ample options to choose from in trimming Pentagon outlays. Tens of billions could be saved by reducing the department’s more than 500,000 private contract employees; slowing the pace of the Pentagon’s three decades-long, $1.7 trillion plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons; modestly reducing the size of the Army in the face of serious recruiting problems; and taking immediate steps to stem contractor price gouging, which was portrayed in detail in a recent report by CBS’s 60 Minutes program.
Over the longer-term the U.S. needs a more realistic strategy that elevates diplomacy and reduces the penchant for overseas military interventions, but the steps outlined above would be the most practical options for freezing Pentagon spending in the short-term.
If the Senate fails to freeze the Pentagon budget when it votes on the debt ceiling bill some time in the next few days, Congress should at least guard against further increases. The $886 billion in military spending contained in the debt ceiling agreement could end up being just the beginning. There is likely to be an emergency package of military aid for Ukraine later this year – a necessary step in supporting Kyiv’s need to defend itself from Russian aggression. But Congress should make sure that the package doesn’t get larded down with Pentagon pet projects that have nothing to do with defending Ukraine. That’s what happened with the war budget – known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account – during the Iraq and Afghan wars. The result was a slush fund that opened the way for tens of billions in excess spending beyond the budget caps that were supposed to be in place to keep the Pentagon budget within reasonable bounds. Congress should not make that mistake again.
Most importantly, Congress should modify the budget freeze and trim the Pentagon budget in the appropriations process that will play out over the remainder of this year.
ABOUT THE WRITER
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.