President Joe Biden promised a new era of bipartisanship when he was elected, telling media in December that “the nation’s looking for us to be united, much more united.” As any plain observer of the nation’s politics can see, partisan tensions are still sky high.
Bipartisanship isn’t quite dead yet, but a major way that both parties could earn voters’ trust is if they worked together to tackle soaring federal debt and deficits. This may seem counterintuitive, given that the Biden administration has been pointing to strong support in public polls for its big-spending plans. But record levels of federal spending and the budget deficit remain of great concern to voters, and that fact hasn’t changed for a decade.
Gallup most recently reported that nearly half of voters worry a “great deal” about federal spending and the budget deficit. An additional 28% worry a “fair amount,” meaning more than three-quarters of voters are at least somewhat worried. These numbers are down from the public worry in 2011 (when 87% were worried a “great deal” or a “fair amount”) but are high enough that lawmakers should care.
It would be great if lawmakers started by tackling unsustainable growth in mandatory spending (including big-ticket programs like Medicare and Social Security), which makes up 66% of total federal spending in the current fiscal year. These programs are major drivers of spending growth and could be disproportionately responsible for any future debt crisis the nation faces.
Absent a grand bargain on entitlement reform, though, lawmakers must seek smaller but meaningful compromises to reduce the discretionary spending pie that Congress controls. The place to start is the Department of Defense budget.
Why? Defense is the largest single part of the discretionary federal budget, coming in at $715 billion authorized by Congress in the previous fiscal year. Military spending typically makes up more than half of the discretionary budget passed by Congress and is projected to rise to more than $900 billion per year by the end of the decade. And, as is typical with the federal government, military spending is rife with waste, inefficiency and improper allocation of resources.
It’s hard to believe, but responsible and meaningful reductions to the military budget were once a bipartisan venture. President Ronald Reagan presided over real military cuts in four of the eight years of his presidency. In 1985 and '86, Reagan and a divided Congress worked together to enact significant defense cuts of 3.8% and 3.1% respectively (adjusted for inflation), with wide bipartisan margins. The following two years, they agreed to additional, if more modest, cuts.
If Biden and Congress did now exactly what Reagan and Congress did in 1985 or '86, we would be looking at military spending next year near or below $700 billion — still a staggering sum from which we can more than afford to defend the nation — instead of three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
Of course, Reagan first asked for and received large increases during his first term, and his last Defense Department budget was 7.4% higher than his first. But given that the present Pentagon budget has risen 36% in real terms in the last 20 years, some bipartisan reductions — in the model of the 1980s and '90s Reagan, Bush and Clinton cuts — are long overdue, especially as the United States ends 20 years of war. Even a very modest 3% cut from last year’s baseline — less than Reagan cut in both 1985 and 1986 — would mean $10 billion in reductions from Biden’s current Pentagon budget of $715 billion.
If lawmakers and Biden administration officials can muster the courage to take up reductions in the defense budget, where should they start? A cross-ideological group of civil society organizations and budget experts has a roadmap, outlining up to $80 billion in potential reductions for the coming fiscal year alone. They include sensible recommendations like halting additional purchases of the issue-plagued and tremendously expensive F-35 aircraft (savings of $11.4 billion), reducing wasteful service contracting by 15% (savings of $28.5 billion), and canceling the Ford-class aircraft carrier (savings of $12.5 billion per carrier).
Military hawks will complain that cuts will make us less well-positioned to take on foreign adversaries like China and Russia — as they complained about Reagan’s proposed military budgets during the Cold War. But as a former assistant defense secretary to Reagan explained in a recent opinion piece, the U.S. military dwarfs China both in budget size and on numerous other metrics.
Simply put, Congress and the Biden administration can afford to make modest, bipartisan reductions in the defense budget. Big spending is not making us any safer.
Andrew Lautz is the director of federal policy for National Taxpayers Union. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.