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Will Obama Cut the Defense Budget?

11:55 AM, Jan 21, 2009 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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In his interview on Meet the Press over the weekend, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made an interesting point when he addressed the problem of the deficit:

MR. EMANUEL: Yeah. Well, as you probably know, that there--over the last decade, the last eight years there's been actually a--there was a surplus at one time, and now we've added in the last eight years $4 trillion of debt to the nation's obligations. What you see here--and the president has always said that we must have an approach to spending money differently and respect for the taxpayers' dollars, and do it in a more efficient way and in a different way. And most importantly, we must deal with the long-term challenges that face this country. So while he has talked about the need--and everybody I think from economists on the left to economists on the right realize that we must make critical investments at this time. And yes, they'll add to our obligation. It has got to be coupled with a serious attack about putting our fiscal house in order. And for too long that hasn't happened. Challenges that needed to be met, responsibilities that needed to be met have not. So from the era--from the area of, let's just say, in the defense area.

MR. GREGORY: Hm.

MR. EMANUEL: On an annual basis we have about $300 billion in cost overruns. That must be addressed, and we will be addressing it...

As Chris Bowers points out, Rahm made the same comment recently to Charlie Rose (around the 20:55 mark of the interview). It's probably no accident that he repeats the same figure, and that he uses the highly subjective term 'cost overruns.' It's one thing to say that defense spending has risen in recent years as we fought two wars, and it is likely to come down. It's quite another to single out the Pentagon as the top example of waste in the federal budget. After all, Emanuel didn't mention earmarks, or transportation projects, or the EPA, or NASA as places where we need to make cuts. The only agency he mentions is the Department of Defense. It's seems like the Pentagon is on the chopping block.

We also ought to consider how big a cut $300 billion would be. The chart below is from the fiscal year 2009 budget briefing prepared by the Pentagon under Secretary Gates.

defensespending.jpg

The figure of $709.6 billion is for fiscal year 2008, and each column to the right is one year down the road, ending with $522.6 billion in spending in 2013 -- the final budget of this presidential term. So a $300 billion cut would represent a reduction of just about half from the $611 billion we are spending this year. It would mean a 40 percent cut in defense spending for 2013.

Would Obama really propose so drastic a plan? Presumably not. It's hard to imagine the devastating effect it would have on the military. It would certainly force highly embarrassing recriminations and resignations from the Department of Defense. And it would almost certainly be rejected by Congress. After all, even Barney Frank only wants a 25 percent cut in defense. Democrats in marginal and conservative districts would be forfeiting their careers if they supported such a plan. So is Rahm is simply softening up the battlefield for a cut of 25 percent or so? I guess we'll have to wait and see.