As President Obama released his budget outline for fiscal year 2010 on Thursday, recommending about $664 billion in defense funding, a determined group of progressive Congress members and activists pushed for a marked change in the way the US spends those dollars. Led by Rep. Barney Frank, the group advocates a 25 percent cut in military spending, to be accomplished by eliminating wasteful and obsolete programs, reducing active nuclear warheads and withdrawing from Iraq in an efficient and timely manner.
The Obama administration's budget allocates $534 billion in general defense funds for fiscal year (FY) 2010: an inflation-adjusted increase of about 2.1 percent over the amount appropriated by Congress last year, according to an analysis by Travis Sharp at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. It's a smaller increase than previous years have seen, according to Sharp, but nevertheless continues the trend of a swelling defense budget. An additional $130 billion is requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's budget outline excludes funding for nuclear weapons and non-Defense Department military costs which, according to Sharp's analysis, totaled around $23 billion for FY 2009.
Military spending has more than doubled in the past eight years; it now tops $700 billion and sucks up about 40 percent of US tax dollars. According to Frank, bloated defense funding is crowding out domestic priorities.
"The logic is irrefutable," Frank said at a forum on Wednesday, where he discussed his proposal to chop off a quarter of the defense budget. "If we are not able to get military spending under control, if we are not able to break the trend that's now there, we will not be able to respond to important domestic needs."
Frank was joined by Congress members Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison, Dennis Kucinich and Lynn Woolsey at Wednesday's meeting. Lee emphasized the benefits of reducing military spending, including more money for education, health care and homeland security. She also pointed to some obvious targets to slash: stale Cold War-era programs that somehow never made it to the chopping block.
"It has been eighteen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union," Lee said in a statement. "I find it mind-boggling and inexcusable that nearly two decades later, the Pentagon continues to waste tens of billions of dollars buying outdated, Cold War-era weaponry for a national security threat that no longer exists."
The flood of dollars toward obsolete systems is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cutting weapons purchases, according to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst with the nonprofit OMB Watch. Substantially reducing the Pentagon budget will necessitate a meaty cost-benefit analysis, discarding appropriations that just aren't worth it.
"Congress needs to ask the critical question, 'Are defense expenditures meeting the needs of the nation?'" Jennings told Truthout. "In other words, does the F-22 make us so much safer from present-day threats like al-Qaeda that it's worth expending tens of billions of dollars on? Do we really need $4 billion stealth naval destroyers? What is more ultimately harmful to the health of the nation: 46 million people without health insurance or the threat of intercontinental ballistic missile launches from North Korea? These are questions that Congress - Democratic and Republican - have consistently failed to pose. While Frank's specific plan may not be the right solution, the very fact that he's broaching the taboo subject of substantial cuts to military spending is very encouraging."
Just trimming the fat - cutting obsolete programs, reducing nuclear arsenals and eliminating wasteful spending - would save more than $60 billion, according to Erik Leaver, policy outreach director for Foreign Policy in Focus.
Also, withdrawing from Iraq could substantially reduce the defense budget. Obama has said that the withdrawal will help to curb the deficit, and despite a troop build-up in Afghanistan, he's probably right, according to Jennings, who estimates that the number of troops in Afghanistan will be about one third of the number currently in Iraq.
However, withdrawal has its costs, too. Procurement and maintenance costs for equipment will continue as long as some troops remain in Iraq, and transporting soldiers and equipment home will add to the tab, according to Leaver. He also notes that the transportation of supplies is more expensive in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Moreover, any plan to reduce the defense budget must take into account President Obama's plans to expand the Army and Marines by nearly 100,000 troops. Growing the military not only increases short-term spending, but it racks up long-term veteran-related costs. According to Leaver, an enlarged military creates a "hidden cost" as well.
"With a larger-sized military, President Obama or other future presidents may be tempted to use them more liberally in combat missions," Leaver told Truthout. "As we've seen with Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, what seems like a 'cakewalk' often turns into a military and fiscal disaster."
Thus, Representative Frank and his colleagues are suggesting a fundamentally different direction: a reconceptualization of the Defense Department as a smaller, more limited enterprise. The transformation won't happen overnight, but it is far from doomed, according to Sharp.
"While I think it is pretty unlikely that Frank's proposal will go anywhere this year, Frank himself has said that he wants this to be a long-term project, not a one-time effort," Sharp told Truthout.
Changes in the defense-budgeting process may pave the way for reductions - or at least bring more scrutiny to skyrocketing military expenditures, according to Sharp. Departing from the Bush administration's general strategy of submitting supplemental spending bills throughout the year to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama budget requests the whole year's funding up front, though it remains in supplemental form, separate from the general budget. The Bush administration tended to request war funds in partial-year segments, obscuring the full cost of the war. The Obama administration has said that in future years, it will dispense with supplementals for war funding, forcing policymakers to weigh it alongside other priorities in the general budget. Experts commend the switch, calling it a boon for transparency.
"This may seem like a small change, but it is an enormous improvement over the Bush administration, which insisted until the bitter end that it could not present its war budget at the beginning of the year even though it was required by law," Sharp told Truthout. "If war supplementals are submitted at the beginning of the year and eventually phased out, it will improve congressional oversight and allow policymakers to perform better long-term planning. It also will present a clearer picture to the American public of what the country spends in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Revealing the true cost of Iraq and Afghanistan would not only bring home the amount of money the "war on terror" is costing taxpayers. Squeezing defense money through the same funnel as comparably meager domestic allocations could potentially force a reassessment of America's priorities. However, even that hard comparison might not have enough oomph to knock Congress out of defense-budget overdrive.
"When it comes to military spending, Congress tends to treat those expenditures as 'free money,' in that they are not in direct competition with other, non-defense program spending," Jennings said.
Thus, according to Rep. Frank, the cost-benefit analysis needs to be spelled out not only for Congress but for the American people.
"If we do not make reductions approximating 25 percent of the military budget starting fairly soon, it will be impossible to continue to fund an adequate level of domestic activity even with a repeal of Bush's tax cuts for the very wealthy," Frank wrote in an op-ed in The Nation earlier this month. "I do not think it will be hard to make it clear to Americans that their well-being is far more endangered by a proposal for substantial reductions in Medicare, Social Security or other important domestic areas than it would be by canceling weapons systems that have no justification from any threat we are likely to face."
Signs may bode well for a serious consideration of Frank's proposal. The fact that the American people elected a president who objected to the invasion of Iraq, coupled with an economic crisis that sheds disapproving light on any wasteful spending, could fuel a new push to reexamine military excess. The Obama administration's moves toward defense-budget transparency could open new eyes to that budget's immensity. Plus, the very presence of an open discussion of the military budget's size is a positive signal, according to Sharp.
"One notable thing about Frank's plan is that it represents a return to public debate about recalibrating and reducing defense spending," Sharp said. "It was politically taboo to discuss reducing or rearranging Pentagon spending requests in the years after September 11. Any member of Congress who dared to publicly question larger defense budgets risked being called unpatriotic, 'soft' on terrorism, or worse. Now, seven years later, it seems things slowly are returning to normal."