Sunday, April 8, 2012

InDefensible?

On March 29, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (who has been mentioned quite frequently on this blog of late) said “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice...I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget.” As the National Journal explains, the context of this remark was a belief that proposed defense cuts were based on artificial markers rather than influenced by strategy.


Ryan had to do the "I misspoke" apology after General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Ryan out in a Wall Street Journal editorial, writing “there’s a difference between having someone say they don’t believe what you said versus ... calling us, collectively, liars.”


Slate has a great analysis of the way in which politicians treat defense budgets; I liked the point that President Obama's defense budget for next year totals $671 billion (including the cost of wars), whereas Reagan's, at the height of the Cold War, amounted to $575 billion. It appears that rhetoric about Obama being soft of defense is (obviously) more politically motivated than grounded in a reality The Slate writer concludes that public critiques of defense cuts are just “jabbering” rather than substantive arguments.


The issue really is that proposed defense cuts are motivating cuts to other areas of the budget. As the New York Times explains , the Republican budget plan passed on the 29thorders six House authorizing committees to draft detailed plans to cut the deficit $261 billion by early May to help avert automatic defense cuts established last summer.” Not a single Democrat voted for the proposal. It’s emblematic of Congressional “Gridlock” that one party is identified with preserving defense spending while the other is saddled with protecting social safety net programs.


As Gretchen Hamel argues, neither Chairman Ryan’s nor President Obama’s budget plans “fully address the big three spending line items (defense, Social Security, Medicare). Neither lives up to the promise lawmakers have made to get serious about spending. Lawmakers should put politics and agendas aside and seek solutions for the deep and growing fiscal crisis. This means a mentality change in Washington.”


This so-called “mentality change” would have to mean admitting, publicly, that cuts don’t have to be a zero-sum game. Politics could be a both-and world, rather than an either-or one. All three of these line items can and should be up for cuts, but in less dramatic and more empathetic ways that don’t sacrifice domestic priorities for foreign ones. Gridlock may be displacing this goal, in favor of more easy political battles.

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