One of the reactions to Paul Ryan’s budget from the left and the press has been the canard that it doesn’t address the real elephant in the room – a supposedly bloated Pentagon. Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin said today that “When he doesn’t address savings in the Department of Defense and doesn’t deal with revenue, it results in dramatic cuts in Medicare benefits and Medicaid services.”
The reality, as Ryan’s budget notes, is that “defense spending as a share of the budget has fallen from 25 percent thirty years ago to around 20 percent today.” He also writes that defense did not get us into our current fiscal predicament – “Unlike defense, the share of the budget that goes to these entitlement programs [Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid] is growing rapidly.” He describes how the government agencies funded by non-defense discretionary spending “have been the beneficiaries of a major spending spree over the last two years.” Ryan adroitly handles accusations that he is leaving a big pot of money at the Pentagon untouched by reminding skeptics that “The first job of government is to secure the safety and liberty of its citizens.”
Ryan’s budget numbers for defense are the same as those in President Obama’s FY12 request and his plan for the out-years. For FY12, this will result in an increase barely at the level of inflation in the core defense budget. Projections in the out years match the president’s questionable assumptions about savings from reduced overseas contingency operations and $78 billion in cuts extracted from Secretary Gates by the White House. (One should note that the inability of Congress to approve a defense appropriations bill for FY11 has already caused difficulties at the Pentagon, where they are still operating at levels well below the administration’s FY11 request and funding major acquisition programs in short term increments. This is yet another reason why Congress should pass the defense appropriations bill this week, as Speaker Boehner has suggested, as part of a CR compromise.)
Ryan’s numbers for defense are better than what many expected—he resisted foolish calls for cuts from some in his caucus. But they are not what they should be to deal with the threats we face. That’s why 23 House freshmen wrote to the House leadership in mid-March calling on them to fund “our military and related national security programs above the President’s request level,” and 29 of the 35 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, led by Chairman Buck McKeon, sent a letter to Speaker Boehner on March 10 requesting a $7 billion increase above the President’s FY12 request, saying, “We should not jeopardize the security of the nation by accepting across-the-board cuts to national defense without regard to the inherent strategic risks.”
These risks have been amplified in recent weeks as the United States has entered into military operations in Libya. Recent developments in Libya and the broader Middle East should remind Americans that crises are always just over the horizon and that even as we drawn down from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan, there is no certainty that the oft-hoped peace dividend will be achieved.
Despite the fact that Ryan embraces Gates’s somewhat questionable efficiencies and five year plan, he does realize how unwise it would be to make small dent in the deficit at the cost of undercutting or significantly pulling back on America’s grand strategy. There are those in the foreign policy elite in Washington, seen in proposals from Democrats and the recommendations of blue ribbon panels like the the president’s Deficit Commission, who argue that America’s fiscal woes necessitate a rethinking of the U.S. role in the world. Of course this is an agenda that some were pushing long before deficit reduction became popular. However, as Libya and the Arab Spring have shown, the fact is that disengagement from the world is neither prudent nor, in the end, possible. Ryan seems to agree: “America must not lose its role in the world. For this and many other reasons, Congress must act now to change the nation’s fiscal course.”
By choosing the middle path and rejecting the narrative that the Pentagon is the problem, Ryan has prevented congressional Republicans from falling into a policy and political trap. As his plan notes, “American men and women in uniform are presently engaged with a fierce enemy and dealing with emerging threats around the world. This budget achieves savings in the category of national defense without jeopardizing preparedness or critical missions.”