The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently issued a sobering update to its budget and economic outlook for the next decade. This important document went almost unnoticed amid the congressional recess, summer vacations, and myriad international crises.
When "the world is exploding all over," as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel so accurately said last month, it is easy to overlook or ignore yet another set of CBO warnings about this nation's perilous fiscal condition. But the globe being engulfed in armed conflict is precisely why it is essential to remember this 2011 wake-up call from outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen: "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt."
While U.S. defense spending steadily shrinks as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), U.S. debt steadily increases. On the current course, defense spending will soon fall below 2.5 percent of GDP, the lowest level since before World War II, whereas debt will rise to over 75 percent of GDP, the highest level since just after World War II.
CBO says the "large and increasing amount of federal debt" has "serious negative consequences." They include "increasing federal spending for interest payments, restraining economic growth in the long term, giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and eventually increasing the risk of a fiscal crisis (in which investors would demand high interest rates to buy the government's debt)."
Annual outlays are projected to grow by $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years with "the three fastest-growing components of the budget" accounting for 85 percent of that increase. They are Social Security; health programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and Obamacare subsidies); and interest. These categories are cannibalizing spending on everything else, including defense.
According to the CBO, "Taken together, all other spending is projected to grow by only about 20 percent. Relative to GDP, such spending would fall from 9.3 percent this year to 7.3 percent by 2024, its lowest percentage since 1940." Entitlements and interest are eating up everything else and compromising national security in the process.
By contrast, as Robert Samuelson recently reported in The Washington Post, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), sometimes called "the Sequester," took nearly $1 trillion out of then-projected military spending over a decade by imposing annual caps on the defense budget. Meanwhile, Samuelson says, "Potential missions multiply: fighting terrorism; deterring cyber-attacks; protecting Europe (after Vladimir Putin's Ukraine gambit, more troops are needed there); coping with Iran's nuclear program; containing North Korea; maintaining open shipping lanes; dealing with a resurgent China."
According to an April story in The Hill newspaper, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has concluded that, "U.S. military spending fell by 7.8 percent in 2013," whereas "China's spending increased 7.4 percent, and Russia's grew 4.8 percent." So as America shifts its spending to debt service and social programs, its increasingly aggressive adversaries are arming themselves for war.
CBO projects that economic growth will pick-up somewhat in the next few years, but taper off again thereafter. It does not forecast the sort of robust growth that could fund a big defense build-up on top of exploding entitlement spending, but that is precisely what prudent politicians say we need, and now.
House Budget Committee Chairman and possible GOP presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) negotiated a bipartisan deal that gave the Pentagon modest relief from the Sequester's spending caps. He has also put forward a budget plan that would increase defense spending over the next decade by about $273 billion more than President Obama proposes.
Ryan would reduce projected non-defense discretionary spending and reform entitlements to help pay for it. Democrats deride that as class warfare, but their spending dreams deny the reality of the risk we run by building up ever more bloated debt while refusing to ready ourselves for an ever more dangerous world.
Republicans are not blameless, but there are too few Democrats with a passionate commitment to a strong national defense now as Senators like Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Joseph Lieberman were in the past. Samuelson slams both parties:
"Higher defense spending is in our interest because global order is in our interest. Global order is hardly guaranteed, but without a strong U.S. military, the odds of global disorder are much greater. This fundamental national interest is being subordinated to short-term political interests — Republicans who won't acknowledge that higher taxes are needed to pay for an adequate military; Democrats who will cut almost anything except retirement spending. History is likely to judge them harshly."
A harsh judgment of history on this could mean that unimaginably bad things have happened to the country.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.