So we're having another budget showdown. Really?
Gah, well, let's get it over with then. What's the deadline this time?
Turns out Republicans aren't willing to cut defense down to sequestration levels after all.
On Tuesday, the House passed H.R. 2216: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014, which allocates more money to defense than allowed under the law. Implicitly, the idea is that the increase in defense spending will be paid for by further cuts to domestic spending.
The GDP report for the fourth quarter of 2012 is, on its face, disappointing. The economy shrunk, at an 0.1 percent annual rate, the first such contraction since the recession's nadir in 2009. But commentators are surprisingly upbeat about it. Spending and investment are still looking good, but sharp contractions in business inventory and federal defense spending sunk the overall number. Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics called it "The best-looking contraction in U.S. GDP you'll ever see."
Judge for yourself. Here's what the report looks like, if you break it down by its components. Click to open a bigger version:
The defense cuts contained in the sequester would be a "disaster," says Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Implementing them would "would risk hollowing out our force," says Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. It would be a "crippling blow to our military," says Sen. John McCain.
But not as bad a blow as the military has faced in the past. This graph comes from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and it shows real military spending since the Korean War ("real" in that the graph adjusts for inflation):
How much has U.S. defense spending grown?
In some ways, it’s a simple question. The Office of Management and Budget keeps very good data on past defense expenditures, and in inflation-adjusted terms, it’s gone up quite a bit since the Cold War, peaking during the height of the war in Iraq:
But then again, the U.S. economy grew quite a bit during that period. Maybe the share of our resources devoted to defense didn’t actually change much. If one looks at defense spending as a share of gross domestic product, you actually see steady decline since the end of the Korean War, with slight upticks for the Reagan administration and the war on terrorism. Here’s Eric Rauchway’s chart on that metric, using both the Historical Statistics of the United States, a database published by the University of Cambridge, and more recent military expenditure data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:
Ask your average American whether the defense budget should go up or down in 2013, and by how much, and they’ll tell you to cut spending by a whopping 18 percent. Ask your average member of Congress the same question, and no matter which party they’re from, you’ll likely hear that defense spending should barely budge from where it is right now.
“It’s a sizable gap—perhaps even a missile-sized gap,” suggested R. Jeffrey Smith, an editor at the Center for Public Integrity and former Washington Post reporter, unveiling the findings Thursday morning at the Stimson Center. On average, Smith and his co-authors found the public wants $103.5 billion in defense budget cuts, or 18 percent of the current budget; Republicans want $74 billion cut, on average, Democrats want a $124.4 billion cut, and independents want a $112.2 billion reduction. Participants evaluated 87 percent of defense discretionary spending, so their cuts might even be higher if the entire defense budget were covered.
Now just compare that to what both Republicans and Democrats are currently proposing: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and House Republicans are trying to pass a budget that would keep base discretionary spending the same in 2013, as compared to the previous year. President Obama proposes a relatively small $4 billion cut to such spending below current levels. Both parties want to avoid the automatic defense spending cuts that are scheduled to happen in 2013 as part of August’s debt ceiling deal, which slashes defense spending by $63 billion. It's not quite an apples-to apples comparison — the defense budget in the survey was about 1 percent mandatory spending, which falls outside discretionary spending — but there’s a big divide between the public and Washington either way.