There seems to be some confusion about what the Obama administration is doing when it comes to defense. I wrote an item complaining of cuts in the defense budget being demanded by the Office of Management and Budget. That was based on articles that appeared on the Fox News website and on Inside the Pentagon, an industry newsletter. The headline from Inside the Pentagon was “OMB Directs ‘Substantial’ Cut to FY-10 Budget Plan; Pentagon to Appeal.”
Now a number of bloggers are suggesting that I and others who have complained are misrepresenting what’s happening. (For examples, see this and this.) Citing a Congressional Quarterly article, they argue that Obama actually proposes to increase rather than decrease defense spending.
The nub of the controversy comes down to how you define a budget “cut”? CQ notes that the proposed Obama budget “would be about $14 billion more than the $513 billion allocated for fiscal 2009 (PL 110-329), including military construction funds, and it would match what the Bush administration estimated last year for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010.”
But while being an increase in absolute terms, this still represents a substantial cut from the $584 billion in spending that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe is necessary. CQ tries to spin the story in a pro-Obama direction by suggesting that the higher figure is a “wish list” from the “Defense Department’s entrenched bureaucracy” that was not signed off by the Bush OMB and is “designed to pressure the Obama administration to drastically increase Defense spending or be forced to defend a reluctance to do so.”
That’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is that the $584 billion figure represents the best estimate, based on the latest information, by our top military professionals of what their services need to deal with the demands of modernization at the same time that they are heavily committed to war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. Are Obama and his budget director prepared to say they understand the military’s needs better than the senior military leadership?
Admittedly I and others should be more careful when referring to “cuts” to explain that they are cuts in projected spending not in absolute numbers. But that’s what “budget cuts” usually mean in Washington. When Republicans try to pare back the rate of growth in social spending, they are inevitably attacked by the MSM and the Democrats for “cutting spending.” (Remember the infamous Time magazine cover of Newt Gingrich as Uncle Scrooge with this headline: ”‘Tis the season to bash the poor. But is Newt Gingrich’s America really that heartless?”) When liberals mount these attacks they explain that budgets must grow to keep up with the growing needs of the poor. That may or may not be true in the case of social programs but it’s definitely true in the case of the armed forces which face growing demands for their services as well as growing bills to make up for an acquisition holiday in the 1990s.
Perhaps if the Obama administration were dedicated to fiscal austerity across the board its desire to pare back defense spending would make sense. But given that the Democrats are playing sugar daddy to all sorts of dubious domestic constituencies it’s hard to see how they can justify being miserly with the Department of Defense-especially when keeping defense production lines open would represent some of the fastest and most effective stimulus spending imaginable.