Rising U.S. Debt Will ‘Crush’ Defense Budget, Lawmaker Predicts
It’s not the “super committee” or the dreaded “sequestration” that threaten defense budgets. The real menace is the crushing federal budget deficit that nobody has yet figured out how to tackle, says Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Political posturing against military spending cuts as being detrimental to national security and job killers “wins the day” but only distracts from having anhonest debateon how the United States will cope with its crumbling fiscal house, says Smith, the ranking minority member on the House Armed Services Committee.
Smith is a moderate pro-defense legislator, but he worries that the overheated rhetoric about the impact of lower defense spending is providing a convenient diversion from far more troubling realities. Even if the 12-member bipartisan “super committee” ends up defying the odds and meeting its goal of reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion, that would not “even begin” to address the long-term U.S. debt problem, Smith says Oct. 27 in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C.
“Our budget and debt are brutal, and we have to deal with that,” says Smith. If the United States were to balance its budget, it would have to cut 33 percent of all federal spending, he says. With a national debt in excess of $14 trillion, rising expenditures and declining tax revenues, the U.S. government's annual deficits are projected to exceed a trillion dollars every year for the foreseeable future.
Smith’s committee, headed by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., has beenleading the charge against cuts to military spending, and has conducted numerous hearings where experts have testified about the catastrophic effects of proposed budget cuts.
The impact that Pentagon cutbacks would have on defense industry jobs is a valid concern, says Smith. “The manufacturing technology and work force are incredibly important,” he says. “We have to have it if we’re going to build what we need to build for national security.”
But without viable solutions to the debt problem, the Pentagon’s budget along with all other government “discretionary” funding will erode as “mandatory” spending grows and tax revenues fall, he says.
He described the dire state of the nation’s finances: The nation’s debt currently equals 80 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. If the super committee finds a way to save $1.2 trillion, that ratio still would be about 75 percent, which is far too high and puts at risk the nation’s credit ratings, Smith says.
Anyone who cares about U.S. national security and military strength should be fearful of the long-term trends, Smith says. “If we don’t make a case for how to fix that, defense is going to be crucified because it is discretionary spending.”
Something has to give, he says. “American voters love to cut spending in the abstract. In my job, we don’t get to cut in the abstract.” The current paralysis in Congress does not help fix this predicament, says Smith. Lawmakers prefer to do nothing, as there is a huge lack of public support for raising revenues or cutting mandatory programs,” he says. “If we don’t step up to this problem, defense will be crushed.”
Smith suggests that raising taxes must be considered as a realistic option to help fund defense and other discretionary programs such as education, research and transportation. “We must argue for more revenue,” he asserts. “If we continue to insist on no new revenue … we should not be arguing against defense cuts.” Dwindling revenue, he says, is “more of a fundamental problem than most people are aware of.” Tax revenues collected by the U.S. government have dropped from 21 to 15 percent of GDP over the past 14 years.
It is a relatively easy argument to make why defense is important, he says. “It’s easier than raising taxes and cutting entitlements.”
Smith also contends that the Pentagon must do its part by eliminating wasteful spending that does not contribute to national security, such as layers of middle management, bloated bureaucracies and unneeded weapon systems.
“Savings can be found in the Defense Department in ways that do not jeopardize national security,” he says. Many of today’s weapons programs and strategies are still infected by a Cold-War mentality that says that the United States must prepare to go to war against a peer competitor. “Our threats are asymmetric,” says Smith. The U.S. military should have a global presence to monitor, deter and build relationships, he says. “But we are not in a cold war with China. We do have to build a force to continue to be present in Asia. But that’s different than going toe to toe” against China. The Pentagon continues to pour billions of dollars into weapons systems that exist in computer models but have no realistic chance of reaching a real battlefield, he says. “How do we change that so we build systems that are possible?”
The best hope for the United States to be able to avert fiscal calamity and protect its military from devastating cuts, he says, is for Congress and Executive Branch leaders to put forth a “10-year path to reduce the deficit, a path that reassures investors that we have a plan for not letting this get out of control.”