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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Bipartisan Budget Agreement Doesn’t Make Partisan Bickering Look So Bad


The American media usually profit handsomely from “hyper-partisan” fighting—finding, and sometimes creating, politically conflict-laden stories that get more viewers, listeners, readers, and thus higher advertising revenues. After abetting this discordant political environment, the media then tell us any bi-partisan agreement to lessen such conflict is good, apparently no matter what’s in it. That’s the impression the media left after Senator Patty Murray (D-OR) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the congressional Budget Committee chairpersons, destroyed the budget “sequester” by adding $45 billion for fiscal year 2014, including $22 billion in added defense spending, to reach only a short-term budget agreement that didn’t deal with the larger long-term issues of taxes and rapidly growing entitlement spending.

On the defense budget, over the next two budget years, which the agreement covers, the accord will nearly wipe away the effects of the sequester “decision rule”—under which across-the-board cuts had to be made. Despite the reputation for military efficiency, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the worst run federal department or agency. This proposition can be demonstrated by the repeated failure of the Pentagon to pass a financial audit. The Pentagon has not been able to account for trillions—yes, trillions—of dollars in expenditures. That monstrous failure in financial accountability seems due primarily to DoD’s budget being shrouded in secrecy and can be surmised by the second worst run department or agency being the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS, although also having a culture of secrecy, is not quite so opaque as DoD and can at least partially pass a financial audit.

Such financial misconduct should give pause even to hawks, who see threats to the nation that others don’t and assume that defense spending should be increasing, not decreasing. Even if defense spending should be hiked—a dubious proposition in a world where terrorism-by-the-weak is really the only threat to the United States in the short- and medium term—the Pentagon’s broken accounting system cannot assure taxpayers that their hard-earned dollars are being translated into enhanced security. Thus, defense spending should continue to be cut, if for no other reason than taxpayers can’t tell whether they are getting their money’s worth.

Of course, the term “defense budget” is a misnomer. In the old days, up through World War II, when the actual mission was more defensively oriented, the nation had the Department of War—a more honest title. After World War II, when the informal American Empire was expanded to encompass most of the world, euphemism took over and the name was changed to Department of Defense. Ironically, during the post-war period, instead of defending an intrinsically safe nation—which has huge oceans as moats, weak and friendly neighbors, and nuclear weapons—DoD has concentrated on projecting offensive power to all corners of the globe. So the organization should really have been renamed the Department of Offense, the Department of the Defense of Other Countries, or even the Department of Defense of the American Empire. Demonstrating that the Department of Defense has little to do with the nation’s defenses was its actions on 9/11—when flailing around, it sent fighter jets out to sea in response to one of the few foreign attacks on U.S. soil in American history—and after those attacks when the Orwellian DHS had to be created.

And the only current threat to U.S. security, terrorism, is blowback from using military power overseas to police the informal U.S. Empire (which Americans would realize if they would just read the writings of Osama bin Laden and statements by al Qaeda) and accounts for only a small portion of the defense budget. In fact, most of the defense budget is used to buy offensive weaponry and provide support for power projection forces overseas that merely generate more blowback terrorism.

The intrinsically secure United States currently accounts for almost 40 percent of worldwide defense spending—U.S. annual military expenditures equal the combined military expenditures of the next 11 highest defense spending nations—but only generates about 25 percent of the world’s economic output. This disparity is imperial overstretch that the United States can no longer afford.

Up until the budget agreement, the Obama administration, the Republican House, and Democratic Senate, bickering and fighting all the way, had achieved something astounding that had not been accomplished since the Korean War—they actually reduced inflation-adjusted federal spending. From fiscal year 2009 (the George W. Bush administration’s last real budget) to fiscal year 2013, federal spending declined three percent in real terms and declined as a percent of GDP two percentage points. Those sterling accomplishments have been imperiled by the breaking of the sequester spending limits, especially on defense.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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