Saying that the Defense Department needs to be more frugal with taxpayer dollars, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Aug. 9 for freezing civilian hires, cutting contract payments, reducing the number of military officers, and shutting down the Virginia-based U.S. Joint Forces Command.
In his effort to cut military spending, Gates may find what seems like an unlikely conservative ally: the Tea Party movement. While much of the movement's rhetoric deals with domestic social spending, some Tea Partiers are also taking a hard look at defense spending and its contribution to the nation's debt.
A quick overview of the federal budget explains why. This year, Washington is on track to overspend by an eye-popping 70 percent (i.e., spending $1.70 for each $1.00 in revenue). Just five categories of the budget account for three-fourths of overall outlays (see sidebar), and defense is one of them.
Defense is the only one of the five specifically named in the Constitution as a national-government responsibility. But the other four-all of which involve direct (or nearly direct) benefits to individuals-have strong political constituencies, making cuts difficult to achieve. So Pentagon spending is likely to be the easiest target to hit, as fiscal conservatives-especially those who may be swept into office this fall on a wave of Tea Party fervor-find common cause with congressional doves who have long sought to restrain military outlays.
This sentiment is already making headway on the campaign trail. While avoiding rhetoric that could be construed as a lack of commitment to national defense, GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky stresses that U.S. military spending must be scrutinized. "We have to [ask], 'Is all spending on the military good? Is there waste in the military?' Definitely," he argues.
Rep. Paul Broun, a libertarianleaning Republican from Georgia, says that looking for places to cut in the defense budget would help address Tea Party concerns. "Most of these people want to look at all federal spending and put it all on the table," he told Politico. "They want to support our troops, but they want to get rid of all the fluff, the fraud, the abuse, the waste in the federal government. They want to see the federal government shrink in size."
Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, is using his position as a member of the presidentially appointed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to argue for more accountability in military spending. "The Pentagon doesn't know how it spends its money," he wrote in a letter to fellow commission members. "In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn't even know if the money is spent. . . ." Coburn wants a spending freeze for the Defense Department (exempting current military operations) until the Pentagon can pass an audit.
While conservative demands for a closer look at military spending are mostly focusing on bureaucracy and overhead, not on military operations, Senate candidate Rand Paul is suggesting that the United States should begin reducing the size of its military footprint. "Part of the reason we are bankrupt as a country is that we are fighting so many foreign wars and have so many military bases around the world," he argues.
That view is echoed by Broun. The United States "cannot be a protector of the whole world," he says. "We cannot do that any longer. We don't have the money."
Joseph Slife is the assistant editor of SoundMindInvesting.com.