September 10, 2015
If you want to know how serious Republican presidential candidates are about fiscal responsibility, just look at their positions on the spending caps put into place by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The caps, which largely cover domestic discretionary programs and the defense budget, brought a modicum of restraint to the federal spending train that careened out of control under the Bush and Obama administrations. But for the special interests that live off the largesse—particularly weapons manufacturers and lobbies for foreign governments that don't mind U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for their defense needs—restraint on the Pentagon's war chest is unacceptable.
Though the caps aren't perfectly constructed, the goal should be expanding them to cover all budget areas. Instead, GOP presidential aspirants are tripping over one another to declare support for turning the military-spending spigot on full blast while also making promises to control the federal government's bloated finances. This incoherent position demonstrates that the GOP field isn't serious about constraining the size and scope of the federal government.
National defense is, indeed, a legitimate function of the federal government, and I concede that defense spending isn't the main driver of our future debt. However, fiscal responsibility demands that defense spending be on the table for review and potential cuts like everything else. That's because politics drives many of the bad spending decisions in government, including on the defense budget. So it's no surprise that there's a lot of reported waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Defense.
And contrary to what defense hawks might have you believe, not every dollar spent on defense actually increases national defense. One could argue that higher spending has instead led to national offense—with some undesirable results. The military spending binge that occurred toward the end of the Cold War led to greater American military adventurism abroad, which led to even more massive military spending over the past decade. Indeed, even with the spending caps on defense, the Pentagon will end up spending more inflation-adjusted dollars this year than it did at the peak of the Cold War.
So how do the candidates feel about lifting the defense caps? According to Rebecca Shabad, a reporter at The Hill, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently affirmed, "I do believe that we ought to end sequestration for the military." Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Congress must "get rid" of sequestration for defense. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina stated that any candidate who "doesn't understand that the cuts are killing us, in terms of defending ourselves," isn't "ready to be commander in chief."
Shabad reached out to billionaire Donald Trump's team but didn't get an answer, though she notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also "support reversing sequestration for the Pentagon and increasing defense spending."
Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called for not only lifting the defense caps but also returning outlays to the budget guidelines established by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2011. That would skyrocket the Pentagon's budget and all but guarantee that the U.S. government (the same outfit that struggles to deliver the mail on budget) could find even more opportunities to stick its nose in areas of the globe where it doesn't belong.
Back in March, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered to increase defense spending above the caps and "pay for it" with offsets—for example, providing less funding for the National Science Foundation and climate change research. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also favors increasing defense spending. He wouldn't support some of Paul's offsets, but he did introduce an amendment with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), that would require Congress to offset increases in defense spending with budget reductions elsewhere and without increasing taxes.
Sadly, just as Democrats erroneously act as if throwing as much taxpayer money as they can at welfare programs makes them the defenders of the downtrodden, Republicans mistakenly act as if shoveling money into the Pentagon's coffers makes them the champions of national security. It's to live in a land of make-believe to insist that big government at home doesn't work but that the success of big government abroad is predicated upon enlarging it and going further into debt.
This article originally appeared at Reason.com.