Most federal powers are discretionary – defense is not one of them. The U.S. Constitution declares that one of its purposes as a guiding document is “to provide for the common defense.” Thus, in anticipation that the debate over the 2016 defense budget will play a major role in the 2016 presidential election debate on national security, the myth that defense spending is the driving force of either annual budget deficits or the national debt must be dispelled.
Last week, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees heard opposing testimonies in the debate on whether or not to allow full sequestration of the defense budget in fiscal year 2016. This debate comes at a time in which both President Barack Obama and the US Congress are considering how sequestration affects the capabilities and readiness of the United States’ military. Congress is carefully considering the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) and how it may eventually affect its constitutional obligations to provide for the common defense. The BCA, written from the assumption that defense spending is the biggest force behind Washington’s overspending, seeks to impose $1 trillion in cuts to the defense budget over ten years.
The problem is that cutting defense spending won’t cure the current budgetary troubles. Only 17% of the federal budget was defense spending in fiscal year 2014 and White House projections forecast it to be only 12% in five years time. Meanwhile, the growth of entitlement programs continues neither unabated nor opposed. So much so that Senator Angus King (I-ME) commented last month during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that “the growth in the budget right now is in mandatory programs, and particularly in health care costs: Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Program. That’s what’s driving the federal deficit. It’s not defense.”
If anything, the BCA should address entitlement spending. In just under half a century, Medicare and Medicaid have gone from accounting for 6% of federal spending to 24%. Just last year, Social Security alone was also 24% of the federal budget. If all goes as predicted, these three major entitlement programs will culminate to 53% of the federal budget by 2024. In short, as an increasingly growing portion of the American populous is comprised of senior citizens, the clout and magnitude of entitlement spending subsequently increases – and goes unquestioned.
Unfortunately, the primary reason why that 53% is unlikely to scare Congress into slamming the brakes on major entitlement spending is that interest payments on the debt will undoubtedly grow faster. Yes, current interest rates are low – but eventually the cost of servicing the national debt will climb frighteningly. The $227 billion of interest the US government will pay this year is 6.2% of the federal budget. In 2020, the $548 billion owed will be 11.5% percent – and the entire defense budget will surely be dwarfed compared to the predicted $827 billion owed ten years from now. That’s 13.5% of the federal budget being used on interest payments. If the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is proven correct, through time, interest payments and major entitlement spending – not defense spending – will devour nearly two-thirds of the United States’ federal budget.
These projections would be most probable in an America where the US citizens turn a blind eye to massive, growing deficits. The BCA is testament to why that scenario seems very unlikely. It was the trillion-dollar deficits initiated during President Obama’s first years in office that resulted in the 2011 legislation and, unluckily, sequestration.
The point is that the US military that accounts for less than one-fifth of the federal budget is being strangled. “In continuing to ask the military to do more with less, we have seen a shrinking of the breathing space between demand and capacity, which limits the Pentagon’s ability to react and adapt to new challenges,” says Ryan Crotty from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Three and a half years ago, when the President assured US citizens that “these long wars will come to a responsible end,” the prospect of reducing the size of the armed forces probably seemed reasonable in light of a long conflict winding down. Yet the recent rise of ISIS has reminded America that the ability to respond to threats at anytime is more than necessary for a geographically-large, developed, and targeted country like the United States.