Defense spending is the largest part of the federal budget outside of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. But with two wars under way, the Pentagon budget has been politically untouchable as a source for deficit reduction. Now, advocates for cuts to what they call a bloated system hope that a report released Friday will help put all of defense spending back on the table.
The report, the product of a bipartisan congressional effort, identifies a series of options for cuts, including reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and Navy fleet and reform of the Pentagon's health care system, that could save $960 billion over the next 10 years.
"There is no doubt that defense expenditure has contributed significantly to our current fiscal burden," the report says. "This is true even aside from war costs."
Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Ron Paul, R-Texas, Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., assembled a task force from think tanks ranging from the left-leaning Center for American Progress to the libertarian Cato Institute. Their report's target: President Obama's fiscal commission. The message: Defense spending should most certainly be on the table.
"It is not realistic for a nation with limited resources to be expected to shoulder the defense burden of the entire planet," the lawmakers wrote to the commission. "Yet American military spending today makes up approximately 44 percent of worldwide defense expenditures."
The lawmakers say they will not vote for any deficit reduction package if it does not include meaningful defense cuts, and they are beginning an effort to get colleagues on board with the same pledge. "I am a great supporter of President Obama but he makes a serious error when he exempts military spending from any budget constraints," Frank told a press conference on Friday.
Obama requested $708 billion in defense spending for 2011. That is more than double the amount in 2001, and war costs make up less than half of that increase. The report's authors say that programs with unproven technology, high cost and low benefits and management problems are ripe for reduction.
"We outspend our enemies and allies to such a degree that there are plenty of places to cut without compromising national security at all," said task force member Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Critics inside and outside the administration say defense has been allowed to grow out of control and that its structure reflects outdated threats and combat strategy from the Cold War. For example, the United States operates 11 aircraft carriers (no other country has more than one) and has 460 military installations in 38 countries, not counting Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We continue to be heavily invested in defending Western Europe, when Western European defense budgets are significantly smaller as percentages of their GDP than ours," Frank said. "I do not know what it is we are protecting western Europe from."
Though Obama has proposed some changes, the results have been mixed. The budgets are still heading upward, boosted by growth in weapons acquisitions, a force that has grown by 100,000 soldiers in the last four years and the expanding costs of health care and other benefits.
"There has been basically no budget discipline for the past 10 years," said Gordon Adams, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and a senior White House budget official in the Clinton administration who did not serve on the task force.
The military faces the same demographic baby-boom bulge as the general population, but Defense Department health care premiums have not increased in several years. Individuals pay just $19 a month and can keep that plan if they go into the private sector or would otherwise be on Medicare.
Meanwhile, Congress has provided pay raises above the administration's requests. The report says the department could save $120 billion in the next decade by gradually adjusting pay raises and health care fees to levels the department has already recommended. But, like many of these ideas, it's a political non-starter during wartime.
"This is an area of the budget that has been just about impossible for anyone within or without the Pentagon to touch," Peterson said.
The administration also has exempted national security departments from a proposed spending freeze, while it has asked all others to prepare budgets for next year cut by 5 percent. Obama's budget blueprint shows continued defense growth into the next decade.