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February 13, 2012

Where’s Romney? National Security Budgeting Edition
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Romney on the phoneThe president’s budget for FY 2013 drops today. We already know the outlines of what it will look like. For an overview, see here. But it’s worth comparing that budget to Mitt Romney’s plan for defense spending. Ezra Klein has a solid rundown of the effects of Romney’s fiscal plans, following Romney’s speech at CPAC. As Klein notes, “Romney has, essentially, made four significant fiscal promises: He has pledged to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. He has pledged to cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP. He has pledged to a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. And he has pledged to balance the budget.” We’ll look at the defense portion, because that’s what we’re focused on here at DA.

But first, a note about Romney’s criticisms of the administration’s budget plans: Romney has alleged that Obama has cut a trillion dollars from the defense budget over the next 10 years and that he’s “hollowing out” our national defense. Already today the Romney camp has called Obama’s budget an “insult” to the American taxpayer. This is of course political speak for the Budget Control Act, which was passed by Congress in a bipartisan fashion – no one in the Obama administration has voiced support for actually imposing the cuts to defense that would occur under the “sequestration” portion of the BCA. The one trillion number is supposed to force a compromise.

What the Obama administration has supported is a $487 billion reduction in the growth of Pentagon spending over 10 years. Those reductions are based on a strategy, which was released last month. As for the hollowing out claim, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service says that term is “inappropriate” for the current circumstances. One can debate the merits of sequestration-size cuts, which are possible but would be stupid to implement the way the law is currently written (i.e. with a drastic cut in the near-term, levied across all accounts equally). But one cannot argue that the administration wants the second tranche of cuts to the defense budget that would happen under sequestration. It’s simply inaccurate – they want tax increases.

Now, the reductions in growth to the military budget that the administration wants are broadly accepted. As Thom Shanker and Elizabeth Bumiller of the Times reported last month, “There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade — the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer — is acceptable.” Some, such as Fred Kaplan and Lawrence Korb, have persuasively argued that the administration could go further with cuts, although again, the administration has gone to great pains to say they don’t support such reductions.

Now to Romney’s plan: The Romney team made the four percent pledge for defense spending in their foreign policy white paper. Remember, the four percent figure means pegging the size of the base defense budget to four percent of GDP and does not include supplemental war funding. (For why such an approach abandons strategy, see here.) Michael Linden over at CAP did the math on this promise. He writes: “Under current projections (with the adjustments described above), defense spending will be about $560 billion in 2016, or about 2.9 percent of GDP. But Romney has promised to ensure defense spending never drops lower than 4 percent of GDP. Keeping that promise will add more than $200 billion in additional federal spending in 2016.” That’s just the base budget; it does not include war funding. Romney’s plan for Afghanistan will entail a long-term, large-scale military presence costing billions more dollars; he also criticized the drawdown in Iraq, which also has significant budgetary implications.

The Romney campaign believes such a stance will benefit them politically. As Scott Conroy of RCP reports, “Key members of Romney's foreign policy team argue that no matter what happens in the months ahead, Obama will be vulnerable in November on defense spending, his shaky relationship with Israel's leaders, and a ‘reset’ policy with Russia that many observers see as ill-fated.”

Romney’s fellow conservatives aren’t so sure though. As George will writes

The U.S. defense budget is about 43 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than the combined defense spending of the next 17 nations, many of which are U.S. allies. Are Republicans really going to warn voters that America will be imperiled if the defense budget is cut 8 percent from projections over the next decade? In 2017, defense spending would still be more than that of the next 10 countries combined.

Will is arguing that Republicans will have hard time arguing against the administration’s plans. Imagine how much tougher that argument gets once you’re arguing for the massive increases, both in base defense spending and war spending, that Romney’s plans propose.

Photo: Mitt Romney Flickr

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