As the dust settles from last night’s Republican presidential debate, much of the media attention is still focused on winners, losers, and who offered the best zingers. But it’s important to point out that while many candidates talked about foreign policy and which countries they wanted to bomb, one important issue received scant attention: our bloated Pentagon budget.
For years now, efforts to rein in out-of-control federal government spending have brought conservatives of all stripes together. The rise of the tea party and the ever-increasing influence of the libertarian strain of the GOP is evidence of that.
But for some reason, the Pentagon’s seemingly limitless credit card has been barely mentioned by the Republican presidential hopefuls.
What’s even more worrying is that some of the candidates think the Pentagon should have more money, despite the fact that we currently have no idea how effectively it spends what it is allotted now, and amid ample evidence of rampant waste, fraud, and abuse.
For example, during last night’s undercard debate, Senator Lindsey Graham resurrected the well-worn misnomer of “the smallest Army since 1940 [and] the smallest Navy since 1915” as reasons to spend more on our military.
But of course, the U.S. Navy didn’t have any aircraft carriers or nuclear subs in 1915, and the First Armored Division’s tanks in 1940 are certainly no match for the M1A1. It’s unclear why we’re comparing today’s military to a bygone era as a reason to give the Pentagon more money it doesn’t need.
This trend was on full display during the last GOP presidential debate too, when three candidates — Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Ben Carson — tried to one-up each other’s promises to spend more on the military, without saying how they’d pay for it. The only slight reference to fiscal prudence was when Carly Fiorina mentioned DOD reform but did not elaborate.
Unfortunately, not one candidate made the case that we should reconsider how much we spend on our military, which is currently somewhere north of the next seven nations combined – most of which are our allies.
To be sure, the United States can and should maintain the largest, strongest, and most effective military on the planet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some fat to trim over at the Pentagon.
We can get a better sense of how much fat there is, and where, if the Pentagon could pass a simple audit. As it stands now, it can’t, and this fact should infuriate any fiscal conservative. If a minor investigation into how Defense Department personnel used government-issued credit cards found that employees spent more than $1 million at casinos and on adult entertainment last year, imagine what a full accounting at the Pentagon would uncover.
And we don’t even need an audit to tell us how much taxpayer money has been wasted on the overhyped and underperforming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It has been estimated that the United States will spend well over $1 trillion – no, that “t” is not a typo – on the F-35 over its lifetime in service. That’s a lot for a fighter that, according to one recent report, “can’t turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane during a dogfight or to dodge the enemy’s own gunfire.”
Even though Congress claimed to have outlawed earmarks, they still pop up in DOD appropriations. For example, in fiscal year 2015 there were 293 earmarks worth more than $13 billion stuffed into the Pentagon spending bill.
We can also cut wasteful Pentagon spending by reducing the size of its civilian workforce, growth of which, astoundingly, continues to outpace that of the active duty military. As a result of sequestration, the Army and Marine Corps have cut troop levels by a combined 58,000, while the civilian workforce has shrunk by only 17,000. We can save money by first determining where the inefficiencies in this growing bureaucracy lie, and then by making reductions where appropriate.
In short, if the Republicans want to make this campaign in part about reducing government spending, they cannot do so without thoroughly scrutinizing the Pentagon budget. Voters would be well-served if the Republican presidential candidates debate this issue. It’s not enough to claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism while ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.
David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.