‘Inflation’: the Trojan horse for runaway military spending
This month, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are gearing up to advance their versions of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act – the annual defense policy bill Congress typically passes into law every year. The Committees play the most influential role in Congress when it comes to shaping the policies and authorized funding levels of the legislation, before the full House and Senate vote on the bill.
If there’s been one common theme among the Republicans on these Committees this year, it’s been the one word dogging President Biden and Congressional Democrats all year: inflation. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), lead Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in April that the “most problematic” aspect of President Biden’s defense budget request – which proposed increasing the Department of Defense (DoD) budget to $773 billion from $742 billion in 2022, a nominal increase but possible inflation-adjusted cut – was that it does not “sufficiently account for historic inflation.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), lead Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, similarly said in April that President Biden “fail[ed] to account for inflation” with his defense budget request.
Sen. Inhofe and Rep. Rogers weren’t the only Republicans speaking out on the matter — at least four other Senate Armed Services Republicans and 16 other House Armed Services Republicans mentioned inflation in their statements blasting the Biden defense budget request. To be fair, some moderate Democrats on the Committees are also insisting the defense budget increase above the rate of inflation.
Interested parties will get a good look at the sincerity of lawmakers’ concerns about inflation over the next several weeks, as the Armed Services Committees ‘mark up’ and advance their defense policy bills authorizing new spending.
As Quincy Institute’s William Hartung has covered in these pages before, lawmakers are almost certain to add billions of dollars (or even tens of billions of dollars) to the Biden administration’s Pentagon budget request as they mark up the 2023 NDAA.
And, as noted above, lawmakers who advocate for ever-growing defense budgets will argue that “inflation” requires the defense budget to be tens of billions of dollars higher than what President Biden requested – possibly over $800 billion.
Pay close attention, though, to where and how lawmakers increase defense spending this month.
This week, Politico highlighted an important quote from a leading official at Biden’s DoD, Kathleen Hicks. In describing likely Congressional efforts to increase the defense budget, Hicks said (in May):
“What we don’t want is added topline that’s filled with new programs that we can’t support and afford in the out-years and that doesn’t cover inflation … That is my number one concern.”
Unfortunately for Hicks, it seems very likely that lawmakers’ defense budget increases this month will be filled almost exclusively with programs that DoD “can’t support and afford” in the long run.
My organization National Taxpayers Union has, in conjunction with the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, been tracking DoD unfunded priorities lists (or “wish lists”) submitted by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and combatant commands across the military this year. These lists have combined to a total of more than $24 billion so far, and provide a realistic guide to where and how lawmakers will increase the military budget this month.
Around one in every ten dollars requested in the “wish lists” so far (at least, the ones that are public) is for the F-35 program alone — also known as the $1.7 trillion plane that can’t fly. Other major “wish list” requests, I wrote, include KC-130J logistics aircraft for the Navy and Marines; E-2D aircraft for the Navy; modernized Abrams tanks for the Army; and EC-37B electronic warfare aircraft for the Air Force.
I’m no inflation expert, but I’m not sure more F-35s and more Abrams tanks will help the U.S. military combat the effects of inflation.
And therein lies the potential for inflation to be a mere “Trojan horse” for defense hawks in Congress to increase the military budget by some absurd number this year. If lawmakers are focusing their entire increase (relative to the Biden budget) on goods and services that have been subject to high rates of inflation — such as basic pay increases for servicemembers and civilians, and fuel and energy costs — then the hawks’ inflation argument may, indeed, be sincere.
My organization would still insist that lawmakers find offsets to those increase with spending cuts in programs less subject to inflationary pressures (such as those in research and development). But at least a defense budget boost narrowly focused on items and services subject to significant inflation would be targeted at real problems and pressures the military currently faces.
If this “inflation” adjustment is devoted to more F-35s, more tanks, more aircraft, and more ships — more of everything, not just higher costs for the goods DoD already needs or plans to procure — then readers should know that the “inflation” argument is a mere convenient excuse. And when inflation abates, lawmakers will no doubt find another excuse for the next big defense budget increase.