The $54 billion question we need ask about defense

By Jeremy Lott

With apologies to the late Republican Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, $54 billion here, $54 billion there, and soon we’re talking real money.

That was the additional amount President Donald Trump asked Congress for in Pentagon spending around the time of his address to both chambers last month and is now part of his budget blueprint, or “skinny budget,” that everybody is talking about.

The eventual increased requests in defense appropriations will likely be well over that amount, but let’s ignore the specific numbers for a minute, as important as they are, to focus on the bigger issue here.

The left’s response to the request was what was instructive. It tells us a lot about how not Americans across the ideological spectrum and most observers view defense spending today, and just what is wrong with that vision.

To take a representative example, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) responded to the request not by judging it a good or a bad idea but by treating the military as a Republican interest.

Trump was holding out the fig leaf of fiscal responsibility by proposing additional military spending would be offset by cuts in domestic spending, which his proposed budget has now done. The Maryland senator would have none of that.

"I can support increases in defense,” Sen. Van Hollen said to the Washington Examiner, “but I'm not going to stand by while he guts our investments in education, innovation and infrastructure."

(Our focus here is foreign policy but it is perhaps worth noting that President Trump is also proposing something like $1 trillion in additional infrastructure spending as a larger package, so that seems a stretch.)

Sen. Van Hollen argued that what Americans “need to have” is a “balance between those requests for defense [increases] and for these important domestic economic investments.”

His colleague, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), called the defense request "the beginning of what will be a complicated and difficult process," which was simply his way of opening bidding.

Coons said that he could “find my way to supporting” the request for Trump’s proposal which “significantly increases national security investments” but he was “gravely concerned” about "savagely cutting a wide range of areas critical to our education, innovation, diplomacy, development and security investments."

When it comes to spending, President Trump only proposes—Congress disposes. By the time all the wrangling is done, these probably aren’t even going to be cuts to speak of. In DC, simply slowing the rate of growth of a department is decried as budgetary savagery.

But this you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours-ism misses something vital. The reason many progressives feel free to treat military spending as a right-wing interest, subject to negotiation, is that many conservatives treat it that way too.

Yes it’s called “defense spending.” Yet the amounts appropriated have very little to do with what normal people have in mind when they think of a truly national defense.

According to several polls recently conducted on behalf of the Charles Koch Institute and Center for the National Interest, more than half (51 percent) of Americans think our post-9/11 interventions have made us “less safe.”

A supermajority of Americans (69 percent) think U.S. actions abroad should only be in the service of the “national interest.” And though they usually weren’t aware just how much their country spends on defense every year, an even larger majority (79 percent) said any additional tax revenues should go to domestic spending, not a military buildup.

I do not think that Americans are being cheap here or even shortsighted. Rather they rightly see the problems with our current foreign policy not in terms of spending but of priorities.

They understand what we are doing has not been working, and it has been stretching our forces ever thinner, with too many commitments and too few results. And they are right about that.

Inside the Beltway, establishment types are currently arguing over how much we should spend on the military to keep the plates spinning, to play whack-a-mole with ISIS or other militant groups that keep multiplying, to chest thump at Russia, to maintain the pretense that we can solve most of the world’s problems.

The voters see that for what it is, and are not impressed. President Trump came to Washington offering real change, but his $54 billion answer is simply good money after bad strategy.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on March 21, 2017. Read more HERE