During a joint press event today in Washington, the Secretaries of Defense and State agreed that politicians must tackle the elephant in the room to reduce America’s crushing debt: mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which account for more than 60 percent of the entire federal budget.
As the Secretaries correctly suggest, America cannot afford to allow these programs to consume ever larger portions of the federal budget and the nation’s income, and delaying reforms would inevitably add to the pressure to shortchange national security funding.
This threat to national security spending is immediate. The recently enacted Budget Control Act created a mechanism whereby Congress, through a newly hatched Joint Select Committee, must reduce the budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Failure to achieve these savings would automatically trigger defense spending cuts with “devastating effects” for national defense, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta once again argued.
Secretary Panetta said any additional defense cuts—on top of the hundreds of billions over the past several years and hundreds of billions over the next 10 years—would result in a hollow force. The term “hollow force” describes the situation when readiness declines because the military does not have enough funding to provide trained and ready forces, support ongoing operations, and modernize simultaneously. Like a freshly painted house with no plumbing or wiring inside, the military may appear functional, but in reality it would be too poorly trained and equipped to be reliable without incurring excessive and unnecessary risk.
Panetta went on to note that additional defense spending cuts would weaken the military’s ability to respond to threats around the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said unequivocally that America is a “Pacific power.” She made the case correctly that now is not the time for U.S. military presence to be reduced in the region, particularly as the nation copes with the rise of China. But she sounded the alarm that American power is up for grabs if Washington doesn’t reverse course on its budget choices.
Ironically, Secretary Clinton lamented how the American public often thinks foreign aid is a much larger portion of the budget than it actually is.
The same holds true of military spending. Poll after poll shows that Americans think the defense budget is roughly 20 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), when it is actually closer to 4 percent for the base defense budget.
The Secretaries are right: Congress must stop slashing defense and focus on fixing America’s entitlement programs now. An excellent guide on how to fix America’s entitlement programs so they are effective and affordable—while balancing the budget over the next 10 years without raising taxes—is Saving the American Dream: Heritage’s plan to Fix the Debt, Cut Spending, and Restore Prosperity.