Among Defense Hawks, Growing Angst About Inevitability of Military Budget Cuts
Reality is setting in for pro-defense deficit hawks on Capitol Hill: Military spending is headed for a nosedive as Congress shows no signs of any compromise on entitlement or tax reforms.
The mood is grim among lawmakers who are conflicted about government spending. On the one hand, they are outraged by the nation’s soaring debt, but on the other hand, they do not want deficit reduction to come at the expense of the military or Pentagon programs.
“Defense is in a very difficult position,” lamented Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
Brooks and other like-minded conservatives are still flabbergasted by the testimony of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, now retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who made waves last year when he told lawmakers that he regarded the nation’s debt as the biggest threat to its security. “He didn’t say North Korea, Iran or al-Qaida,” Brooks added.
“Debt can cripple us from within,” Brooks told military officials and Pentagon contractors Dec. 15 during a conference of the Army Aviation Association of America, in Arlington, Va.
Once the U.S. government becomes unable to continue borrowing money at the current pace — about 40 cents of each dollar it spends — the bottom will fall out of the defense budget, Brooks said. Defense, which consumes 17 percent of the federal budget, is the largest discretionary account. To bring the $1.3 trillion annual deficit under control and avert massive cuts to defense, Congress has to tackle entitlement programs, Brooks said. If it comes down to a battle between defense and social programs, the latter will win, he predicts.
“A lot of members of Congress have national defense as a low priority or, worse yet, as a hostile place to put money,” he said.
It is becoming clear that the United States has to choose between social programs or the $700 billion-a-year military it has today, but it can’t have both, said Brooks. “We need to focus on entitlement programs, or national defense is going to get hammered. … Our economy hasn’t been strong enough in the past couple of years to pay for both.”
At some point, elected officials will have to stop pandering to voters who keep expecting to get something for nothing, Brooks groused. “American voters do not understand the problem as well as they should, are easily swayed by emotional arguments rather than thoughtful arguments.”
The payroll tax holiday that Congress has been debating this week is an example of butter winning over guns, Brooks said. The payroll tax break would amount to $120 billion per year that otherwise would go into Social Security and Medicare funds. To offset the tax break, Congress is going to either increase borrowing or cut spending elsewhere, possibly in defense, said Brooks.
For all the teeth gnashing on Capitol Hill about controlling the deficit, so far Congress has shown it does not take this issue seriously, he said. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, federal spending went up $141 billion, he said. “The best we were able to do in terms of cuts was increase spending by $141 billion.”
Brooks came to the AAAA conference to promote a group he founded, the Army Aviation Caucus, a bipartisan assembly of 32 lawmakers. “Even in these polarized times of partisanship and deep divides, there is strong bipartisan support for Army aviation,” he said. Brooks’ Huntsville district is home to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, where aviation programs are overseen.
He recently made headlines when his name appeared in a report by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that highlighted pork-barrel projects that members from both parties inserted in the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Brooks was called out for introducing an amendment to provide $2.5 million for "autonomous cargo rotorcraft for unmanned aerial vehicles."
McCaskill’s report sought to point out the hypocrisy of a purported GOP ban on earmarks. In an interview with The Huntsville Times, Brooks defended the funding request as necessary research that helps troops in the field.