In its final stages, debate over the supercommittee has boiled down to squeezing new revenues out of millionaires vs. cutting the social safety net. The largest portion of the discretionary budget, however, funds the military — and that fact has been mostly obscured in this equation. With the panel in its final death throes, military spending is emerging from the shadows in the form of “defense sequestration.” This is the requirement that failure would trigger $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, half of which would come from the Pentagon's coffers.
Scare tactics don’t tend to produce entirely sensible legislation, and this one is no exception. Yet can these cuts be made with no sacrifice to our security? Emphatically, yes.
The Pentagon and its allies in industry and Congress are warning us over and over that this “doomsday” scenario will leave us weakened and vulnerable. They're ignoring several pretty important facts. The “sequestration” cuts, added to those already planned, would bring our military spending, in inflation-adjusted terms, to its 2007 level. Was anyone talking about doomsday then?
Thirteen straight years of military increases, moreover, have more than doubled the Pentagon's base budget (excluding war spending), bringing it to its highest level since World War II. And these increases have actually expanded the gap between U.S. military spending and the rest of the world. At the beginning of this period, we were spending about a third of the world’s total. Now we're spending about half.
Even if sequestration cuts across all military programs, this sort of ham-handed approach is safely doable. Our blank-check approach to military spending in this century has created waste in every program, waiting to be trimmed. Even as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta works to protect his budget at the expense of all others, his Pentagon remains the only federal department that can't pass an audit of its books.
The Project On Government Oversight has calculated that simply cutting back by 15 percent on the privatization of military functions that has occurred in this period would save $300 billion over 10 years.
Is sequestration the best way to manage a defense drawdown? No. For one thing, the best way would make choices based on how much we need to spend, on what, to keep us safe. A new security strategy could allow us to question, for example, the need for our current “forward presence,” which has between 105 and 125 ships cruising around three oceans nearly all the time, and target savings accordingly in the naval budget. Sequestration bypasses this kind of thinking.
Nor would the sequestration “haircut” do anything good for our enduring unemployment crisis. Military cuts, it is true, will have a smaller impact on jobs than other cuts in the domestic discretionary budget. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts found that $1 billion in military spending sustains about 11,000 jobs as compared to about 17,000 from an equivalent amount of spending on clean energy. Let's cut spending on military programs we don’t need and invest those savings in job creation by making things we do need.
This is the kind of vision laid out in a new report from my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies. It outlines a set of cuts to those military programs we don’t need, and combines that with fiscal reforms and pollution taxes. The result would be more than $800 billion we can invest in building the kind of country we all deserve.