In another policy stance that's almost certain to send Washington's K Street lobbyists scrambling, Tea Party leaders are now saying that no spending category -- including the defense budget -- is off the table in their effort to cut federal spending and eliminate the budget deficit.
"The widely held sentiment among Tea Party Patriot members is that every item in the budget, including military spending and foreign aid, must be on the table," Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told CBS News.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Tea Party-aligned members in Congress will follow through with the political faction's stated intentions, but if they do, they'll be making the fiscally and economically correct choice. Here's why:
In addition to tax and fee increases, any effort to balance the federal budget will require adjustments to entitlements -- primarily Social Security, but also Medicare -- cuts in discretionary programs, and reductions in a budget area that has proven almost as untouchable as Social Security: the Defense Department.
Both presidents and congressmen have long been reluctant to target defense spending for cuts, for fear of being labeled "soft on defense." Political vulnerability to that criticism is especially high during periods when the nation is at war, as it is now.
Is a Leaner Pentagon Possible?
However, the reality is that even during wartime, there are dozens of Pentagon programs that aren't vital, and that could be were reduced or eliminated without making the nation any less safe.
What's more, the reality of defense spending is that -- given the threat posed by asymmetrical, unconventional conflicts in the post-9/11 era -- spending on certain conventional and Cold War-era defense programs may actually be weakening national security, by taking away money from new programs and techniques that can more-effectively address and eliminate current security threats such as terrorism.
Would the money required to build another Navy aircraft carrier group enhance national security more if it was spent instead on commando/special operations and intelligence operations that can more effectively root out terrorists and their bases? At this point in the post-9/11 era, it looks like the U.S. is likely to need more special ops forces and fewer carrier groups in the decade ahead.
Beyond the question of priorities in the national security budget, there's also an undeniable financial reality: The U.S. can't afford to keep spending $730 billion a year on defense, as it did it in 2009 -- not if it hopes to balance the federal budget without a large cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits and a large tax increase. Further, unless the U.S. economy unexpectedly records a GDP growth decade of 5% annually, federal revenue alone will not be enough to balance the budget. That means weeding out needless programs, wherever they are, including needless/redundant defense programs.
How Large Should Defense Cuts Be?
How much should Congress cut from defense spending? A prudent goal would be a cut of $40 billion to 50 billion annually for five years, reducing the Pentagon's budget to about $500 billion. That would eventually lower federal spending by about $250 billion per year in 2017. However, special care should be taken to avoid jeopardizing front-line troops, and to avoid underfunding Veterans Administration services, demand for which will increase in this decade, as service members return home from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What's a good defense spending model to follow? In the modern era, perhaps the best and most efficient steward of the defense budget was none other than a former general, President Dwight Eisenhower.
During his eight-year presidency, Ike did an admirable job containing defense spending. Incredibly, the Department of Defense budget was lower when Ike left office in 1961 than when he assumed the office in 1953, despite the fact that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was intensifying.
Here are Eisenhower's eight annual Pentagon budgets, in both actual dollars, and in 2010 dollars, adjusted for inflation:
1954: $49.3 billion or $398.9 billion in 2010 dollars
1955: $42.7 billion or $346.8 billion
1956: $42.5 billion or $340.1 billion
1957: $45.4 billion or $351.6 billion
1958: $46.8 billion or $352.4 billion
1959: $49.0 billion or $366.5 billion
1960: $48.1 billion or $353.7 billion
1961: $49.6 billion or $361.0 billion
How was Ike able to limit defense spending, despite Soviet Union General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's dramatics in the late 1950s, and his strident claims that Communism would bury the west? Ike had an advantage no president since has had: He was a five-star U.S. Army general who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, and led our nation to victory in World War II versus Hitler's Nazi Germany. It would be impossible to paint him with the brush of being "soft on defense," and no member of the Joint Chiefs could question his qualifications to cut program from the defense budget.
While President Obama may not have the same level of insider knowledge of the Pentagon as President Eisenhower, Ike's administration at least offers him some guidance: If Eisenhower was able to cut and limit defense spending during the tense 1950s Cold War period -- an era of at least comparable, if not greater security risks to the United States -- Congress and the president should be able to cut less needful programs from the defense budget today.
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