Both parties agree on one thing: More money for the military
It was quite a week last week. Forest fires and floods testified to the devastating, inexorable march of global warming.
— Record high inflation, led by food and gas, continued to strike at American pocketbooks. (I’ll take the gas price increase if it incentivizes a more rapid move toward renewables, but it is a financial disaster for consumers, farmers, and shippers and a political disaster for the Democrats in the fall.)
— FED action raising interest rates foreshadowed a recession and an end to much-needed wage increases and low unemployment.
— The Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and NY State’s gun control law, telling us the court will be hard right conservative for years to come.
— Starvation loomed in the developing world as Ukrainian grain supplies remained blockaded by Russia. Increased migration will surely follow. The war continues, making oil market problems worse and killing 100-200 Ukrainian solders a day.
As we celebrate the nation’s founding, we are at risk of becoming a severely divided people, as Ronald Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic recently. Fact and reason seem to blow like early autumn leaves in the wind.
The flood of bad news rivals Hurricane Katrina and takes my breath away. I want to crawl under my bed, play old Beatles and Rolling Stones tunes, cuddle my cat, Doc, until the storm passes.
Oh, wait, there is one big political agreement we almost didn’t notice. Amidst all this turmoil, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees agreed by staggering majorities that we need to spend more on defense in the coming fiscal year. Not just more, but tens of billions more than the $813 billion President Biden already asked for when he sent up his budget in late March. The Senate Committee added $45 billion, by a vote of 23-3. The House committee was a piker, adding only $37 billion, by a staggering 57-1 vote, with only one dissent – Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA)
Did I tell you that both committees are chaired by Democrats? As if that mattered.
As a budget maven, I acknowledge that the Armed Services committees are “authorizers.” They don’t appropriate the actual money DoD can spend; they are just authorizing a certain level. If the appropriators, who do the real money, want to go along, they will. But if that gives you hope that the military spending train can be slowed down, you need only look to the current military budget, where the appropriators approved $29 billion more than Biden requested for this year.
The military budget is on the march and everybody seems to agree, like they have for years. A rare moment of bipartisan unity.
It’s less about national defense than it is about politics. Republicans are talking tough and Democrats are scurrying for political cover so they won’t be accused of being “weak” on national security. That’s the cudgel Nixon, Reagan, and every Republican has beaten Democratic heads with, ever since George McGovern went down in flames in 1972.
Take what happened in Maine as an illustration. The House committee’s increase was sponsored by Jared Golden, Democrat, US Army vet holding the purple seat in the 2nd CD, facing a strong Republican opponent.
Golden has disappointed me pretty regularly, but then, I live in the 1st CD, so why should he care? The 2nd is economically poor, white, loaded with Trump supporters (twice that electoral vote has gone to Trump). Gun control is anathema, mask use was contested, and the military is sacred. Nobody is going to call Golden “weak” on national security, not if he can help it.
Moreover, the shrunken military-industrial complex in Maine still has a naval industry, with ships built at Bath Iron Works 8 miles from my door and repaired in Kittery (and Portsmouth NH across the river). All the Maine politicos line up in support – the liberal Chellie Pingree, the Independent Sen. Angus King, and Republican Susan Collins (who was “misled” by Brett Kavanaugh).
Democrats don’t want to look “weak.” Industries and bases are important constituents. And you can bet the defense industry flogs their interests hard. The military services always want more. In a book I wrote 40 years ago, I called this the “Iron Triangle” – the working system that links the services, the Congress, and the industry (and communities). In support, we all get pummeled with publicity and appeals to patriotism (Just watch “Top Gun: Maverick” – a total fiction – if you want the latest Hollywood version of military propaganda.)
Of course, the official rationale for all this spending is that China, Russia, and those pesky terrorists are coming. The US military way overmatches Russian capabilities today. Chinese capabilities are now being hyped as the threat, though the US military far out-matches what the Chinese have, as well. It’s threat inflation; much as the Soviet military was hyped during the Cold War. I am not saying there is no capability there; just that DoD continually underestimates what we have and overestimates them.
This is the reality of the Top Gun world. It’s about political power, local influence, campaign contributions, strategic rhetoric, and mystifying the nation, way past the point of necessity or even our best interests. The system is, as they say in the military, a “self-licking ice cream cone.” Exaggerate the threat, get funds and systems to deal with it, and continuously recycle the need for more to Congress and the public.
I listened regularly to those overestimates and observed the Iron Triangle for five years when I worked out of the White House on national security budgets.
Why is the military budget so big, I was asked? It’s about being global cop, is the answer. I used to tote briefing graphics around the West Wing, ready to sit down with anyone interested.
It showed that we have the only military in the world that can deploy ground forces (Army and Marines) around the globe. The only military that sails warships in every sea. The only military that can deliver air power on a global basis. To make these operations possible, we are the only country with a global basing infrastructure (750 across the world), military communications system, transportation network (sea and air), and network of military and civilian intelligence operations. It is deployed virtually everywhere in the world.
A global military costs a lot of money. It makes a lot of people rich. It makes lives in some countries worse (think Iraq and Afghanistan). It wastes a lot of money (those military vehicles we left behind for the Taliban, for example). Above all, it gets us in trouble (today we are investing the US military in Africa, with little public discussion; our future wars).
It is deucedly hard to challenge this juggernaut. In my experience, the military budget only goes down for two reasons. Reason one – we get out of a war and suddenly need to spend less. Reason two: defense gets caught in an era of deficit reduction. The only way Democrats and Republicans can agree to cut federal spending is if everything is on the table – Republicans want to cut domestic spending; Democrats want to cut defense. Happened in 1985, 1990, and 2011. Not likely to happen again soon.
We’re having a hard time getting agreement on anything else in this country – race, climate change, abortion, prison reform, immigration, childcare, gun control, you name your favorite fundamental disagreement. When it comes to budgets, we set these priorities every year. The military budget comes out a bipartisan winner, most of the time.
This article was republished with permission from Sheathed Sword.