Government Spending: the single most important issue today

The Rio Grande Foundation works on a variety of public policy issues, but no single issue is more important than that of out-of-control spending. That is why we have joined the newly-formed “Coalition to Reduce Spending,” a nationwide coalition that believes that the “country’s escalating national debt is the challenge of our generation.”

To show that spending is not a partisan issue, I recently responded in an unprinted opinion piece to an article written by Allen Weh in which he argued against any cuts to military spending. Of course, Weh is by no means alone in opposing cuts to preferred government programs. I also take the Democrats running for Congress in New Mexico to task for misleading Americans on the need (or lack thereof) to reform so-called “entitlement” spending.

I respect Allen Weh’s service to his country and our state, but I have to take issue with his recent article in which he argues that the US military cannot withstand more cuts. Let me preface this article by stating clearly that, while a strong national defense is the most basic and proper role of government, too many in Washington (of both parties) have been unwilling to take a critical look at what is necessary and what is not when it comes to the military.

First, there is the issue of “cuts.” Back in 2000, the US military spent $300 billion. Today, that number is close to $700 billion. That is not a cut by any definition of the term.

Weh notes that military spending now comprises “only” 4.7 percent of gross domestic product. That may not sound like much, but in what other area of the federal budget do conservatives justify spending based on a portion of the overall economy?

We need a military that is strong enough relative to those of other nations to provide an effective deterrent. Military spending as a percentage of the economy is irrelevant. More importantly, the US spends nearly 5 times annually what China spends and nearly 10 times what Russia spends (the second and third biggest military spenders globally). Factor in our allies, Britain, France, and Japan (fourth-sixth) and the US and its allies are clearly the world’s military superpowers.

Interestingly, America’s military establishment is catching on to the fact that budgetary issues as opposed to military threats from abroad are the greatest threats to American prosperity. In April, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations stated that it was “crushing debt burdens and poor domestic policy planning. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued much the same thing as well.

Why would these military men make such a big deal out of America’s deteriorating fiscal situation? Quite simply, they understand that American military might has always relied on its economic might.

This year, the federal government is overspending by $1.3 trillion. Out of a $3.8 trillion budget, that is a shortfall of 36 percent each year. Set aside the fact that much of this money is borrowed from China (a prospective military rival) and note that the annual deficit is nearly double the size of the annual military budget!

Obviously, the budget deficit is not going to be resolved through military cuts alone, nor should it be. However, conservatives lose all credibility on budgetary issues if they take military spending off the table at the outset.

Of course, Weh is by no means the only politico living in a budgetary dreamland. Martin Heinrich and Eric Griego are just two of the most prominent New Mexico politicians advertising that Medicare or Social Security are “off limits” to any cuts or reforms. These people are even more unrealistic than Weh due to the nature of these programs.

Notably, defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, add up to approximately 65 percent of the federal budget, but the real problem is that so-called “entitlement” spending – primarily Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – is set to explode in the years ahead, consuming all federal tax revenues by 2045.

Heinrich and Griego (as well as other candidates using this tactic) are doing themselves and their nation a grave disservice with ad campaigns claiming that these programs are sustainable absent major changes. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has started the “adult conversation” on the budget in Washington with a plan that would reform Medicare and Medicaid. Unfortunately, too many in Washington would rather portray Ryan as “throwing grandma off a cliff” rather than engage in a serious debate.

The unsustainable federal budget should not be an ideological issue; rather it is a mathematical issue. The only way to put America on a sustainable budgetary path is to put all spending on the table, not to open the discussion by making our preferred programs sacred cows.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.