By Tila Neguse
Gridlock over the federal budget has persisted in Washington for over 2 years. After what seems like ages of budget uncertainty and a year of sequestration, Congress was finally able to agree on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.
The good thing is that this deal calls for parity between defense and non-defense spending, maintaining an even split between the two. For a while, parity looked like a heavy lift, as defense industry lobbyists and even some members of Congress supported repealing cuts for the Pentagon and shifting the burden to non-defense spending. This deal codifies this equity. The increase in spending on the non-defense side is very good. Non-defense discretionary spending programs simply could not handle another year of harmful sequestration cuts. Last year, 57,000 kids were kicked off Head Start and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the housing voucher program was projected to serve 185,000 fewer low-income families in 2014. Sequestration hurt the most vulnerable among us and this deal helps heal some of the damage done.
But the parity principle hangs in delicate balance. While providing much needed relief for non-defense programs, the deal unfortunately grants the same privilege to the Pentagon. To date, the Pentagon has yet to pay its fair share. In 2014, the Pentagon was scheduled to take a $20 billion cut because its budget was well above the spending caps mandated by law in the first year of sequestration — while the budgets of many domestic programs were forced to meet harsh spending caps. Now that this deal has undone sequestration for the short term, the Pentagon has again avoided cuts. While human needs programs were struggling to provide for beneficiaries with dwindling budgets, the Pentagon continued to spend billions of dollars on wasteful weapons like the F-35, and Congress continued to authorize spending for weapons systems the Pentagon didn’t even want. Where is the equity in that?
In 2012, the Pentagon’s budget, including war spending, spending on nuclear weapons and Pentagon related spending in other agencies, reached over $800 billion. That means in one year, the Pentagon was able to spend almost the entire price tag of 10 years of sequestration ($1.2 trillion). Though World War II ended a half century ago and the Cold War over 20 years ago, the Pentagon still has a budget that trumps the budgets of the next 29 biggest spenders. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, the Pentagon should be reorienting its strategy to fit today’s realities, and Congress should exercise its options by reviewing the spending practices at the Pentagon and determining whether those practices serve the nation’s actual needs.
But the opportunity to rein in Pentagon spending still perseveres. Under this current deal, military spending is not growing exponentially, as it has done over the past decade, and is instead frozen. However, it can and should come down further. The budget crisis over the past couple of years provided us with a unique and transformative opportunity to talk about cutting Pentagon spending, an unheard of discussion in the past. Going forward we will continue to advocate for necessary reductions in the Pentagon budget. Experts across the political spectrum agree that the Pentagon can take cuts—big cuts–without harming our national security. This deal is a step in the right direction, but we must continue to urge Congress to impose budget discipline at the Pentagon, and shift our budget priorities to meet the real needs of the nation.
Check out fcnl.org/budget for an in-depth look at what this deal does.