Defense hawks say ‘freedom isn’t free.’ They’re right. So let’s pay for it with spending cuts, not by borrowing.
By MICK MULVANEY
Last week Republicans in the House and Senate passed budgets that took the Budget Control Act of 2011 and threw it out the window. Many defense hawks think this was a win. The truth is that the GOP lost.
As recently as the summer of 2011, debt and deficits were all the rage. Even the most strident Republican defense hawks were reeling from dire warnings from the Pentagon that, as then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen put it, the “most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
So in August of that year, my fellow Republicans and I declared to the American people that we would raise the debt ceiling only as part of a larger agreement to reduce future growth in spending. “We will spend the money now,” we declared, “but we promise to save it later.” That commitment was embodied in the Budget Control Act, which set spending caps on defense and nondefense spending. It became the law of the land. It still is.
Four years on, debt and deficits are passé, and the deficit is only a third of what it was just five years ago. Never mind that this year’s deficit will be the sixth-largest in history—exceeded only by the previous five—or that the national debt has ballooned by $3 trillion in that time. Today beheadings and racial tension grab the headlines.
With fiscal concerns no longer in vogue, House Republicans broke the statutory caps of the Budget Control Act and did so in a way that wasn’t honest. Instead of making the arguments for changing the law, the House budget used an off-budget fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, to increase military spending.
The OCO should trouble Republicans. The so-called war budget, set up when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, has been decried for years as a slush fund, and rightly so. No less a defense hawk than Sen. John McCain has called it a gimmick. The OCO is perhaps the worst way to fund the military. It lacks oversight and accountability within a Pentagon already famous for its inability to know where the money is going.
By far the largest objection is that this additional military spending isn’t “paid for.” That was no accident. Defense hawks lobbied against any budget that would offset additional military spending with cuts elsewhere. That willful decision to avoid making hard fiscal decisions forced many deficit hawks to abandon the budget. Many of us supported an alternative that provided almost the same military funding but paid for the extra spending with reductions elsewhere. That alternative got 105 votes in the House, fewer than half of Republicans.
There is no honest way to justify not paying for spending, no matter how often my fellow Republicans try. The same defense hawks who voted for the spending caps originally now say “the world is a different place.”
No it isn’t. Today we have Islamic State militants controlling parts of Syria and Iraq, Russia threatening Ukraine, and Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. Is that really so different than 2011, when the Arab Spring was destabilizing the Arab world, Bashar Assad was gassing his own people in a torrid Syrian civil war, and Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons?
The world will always be a dangerous place. Which is why we need a strong military. All Republicans agree on that. Period. The story behind the GOP budget has little to do with defending the nation. It has everything to do with the deficit. Put another way: All Republicans want a strong military; not all of us want to pay for it.
“Freedom isn’t free,” Sen. McCain tweeted at fiscal conservatives before the Senate passed a budget using the same gimmick as did the House. Our response: We agree with you, senator. It’s not free. So let’s pay for it. What House and Senate budgets tell people is this: “Defense is important, but let’s borrow the money and let our children pay for it.” That isn’t courage, but the opposite.
Until this budget, Republicans were beginning to convince people that they were serious about reducing spending. GOP budgets in recent years have made hard decisions on everything from defense to Medicare to food stamps. Republicans had begun making the argument that all spending is subject to scrutiny. Now there is a new message: Republicans will cut things they don’t like, but they lack that same conviction on things they like.
Because of the hard decisions that defense hawks and deficit hawks had made together, Republicans were gaining the moral high ground on spending. Last week we lost it, and it will be harder to regain the next time.
Then again, who knows? This fall the debt ceiling will need to be raised again.
Mr. Mulvaney is a Republican congressman from South Carolina.