Deficit Reduction, Meet the War Budget

The agenda in Washington has shifted to a single topic: the deficit, the deficit, and the deficit. Okay, also the national debt. With the recent 2011 budget deal and the upcoming fights over the 2012 budget and raising the debt ceiling, the national political discourse has become stuck in this muck, with politics and demagoguery transcending reasonable debate about policy and reality. The grand opening of GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s extreme budget plan was evidence that Washington has gone gaga over context, without focusing on the true substance. And as the Republicans and President Obama compete for cred as spending-cutters, there is a big matter they have yet to truly take on: military spending. All the slashing that they achieved this past week—to much mutual congratulation—will easily be wiped away by the phony bookkeeping of America’s wars. As Matthew Leatherman, an analyst for the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, explains,

The administration plans war spending one year into the future and then defaults to an agnostic “placeholder” figure for the following four years. Using that placeholder in next year’s budget request gives the impression that war spending will drop from $118 billion in 2012 to $50 billion annually in 2013.

It will not. Contrary to official policy, huge federal debt is hidden in this bookkeeping sleight of hand…

[A] $50 billion target for war costs in 2013 would be a long stretch. Congress and the administration should foresee costs in excess of the Pentagon’s placeholder and must be prepared to manage the situation, ideally by jettisoning the entire idea of a separate war budget.

So projected deficits are likely, in reality, to be much greater, once the true war costs are figured. This is just another indication that unless Congress and the White House get serious about reducing Pentagon spending, their attempts at reducing deficits and the national debt—for all the noise—will not be serious.

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