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The Unbearable Lightness of Barney

A Democratic congressman's irresponsible and impossible plan to cut the defense budget by 25 percent.

12:00 AM, Oct 31, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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The real threat to the defense budget comes from what has been called "entitlement squeeze"; i.e., the growth of "entitlement programs" such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the like, which go up every year in response to inflation and new government mandates, without Congress even having to appropriate the money--it's just taken off the top, automatically. That leaves less and less room for "discretionary' funding--money which Congress has to appropriate and authorize every year. Defense constitutes the single largest pile of discretionary funds, and is also the one with the least domestic support, since its benefits are not visible (unless there is a war). Congressmen and senators would much rather spend money on programs that directly benefit their constituents, since these are most likely to be rewarded with votes on election day. But given the present growth of entitlement programs, the only way to do this without either increasing the federal deficit or passing unpopular tax increases (the sponge that is the "super rich" has just about been squeezed dry) is to take money from one pile of discretionary money and move it to more popular ones. Defense is the only significant discretionary funding that can be raided in this manner. Bill Clinton did it during his administration which is why we managed to get increases in domestic spending and a budget surplus. All it cost was a military force that was undermanned and undercapitalized when we needed to go to war. But, hey, that was a calculated risk, one which Clinton seemed to have won--9/11 wasn't on his watch, after all.

So when Barney Frank talks about a 25 percent cut in defense spending, know (a) that it cannot be done; and (b) if anyone tries, the result will be disastrous. Playing games with the defense budget will not solve our fiscal problems--but it does distract from the real, and unpopular solution, which is serious entitlement reform.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.