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What the Tea Party can teach Mitt Romney about defense spending
Romney says cuts to the defense budget would be devastating, but he should take a cue from the Tea Party and call for a reduction in Pentagon spending
 
Dana Liebelson
Dana Liebelson

What does the Tea Party have in common with the liberal anti-war group Code Pink? At first glance, not much. The former heckles President Obama and champions tax cuts; the latter heckles George W. Bush and attempts to arrest Karl Rove in public. But last week, both groups supported a House amendment that would rein in runaway defense spending, by freezing the Pentagon budget at $518 billion.

And here's the crazy thing: The amendment passed, thanks to its bipartisan support in and outside of Congress. These days, it's extremely rare for Congress to vote to cut the sacred cow of defense spending. Granted, the House is still giving the Pentagon a couple billion dollars more than it had requested, but still, this is a start.

Although the Tea Party, Code Pink, and others are putting aside their ideological differences to work towards smarter defense spending, it doesn't look like GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will do the same. Instead, he has climbed right on board the impending-apocalypse train dreamed up by defense contractors, and is shrilly blowing the industry's whistle.

Americans on average favor much deeper defense cuts: About $103.5 billion overall.

In a July 13 open letter to President Obama, Romney wrote, "Your insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service. It will shut the doors on factories and shipyards that support our warfighters... It will shrink our Navy below a level that is already not adequate for protecting our national security."

Scary claims, but where do they come from? The cuts Romney is referring to are the across-the-board budget reductions, also known as sequestration, that are going to kick in next year. Most people don't want sequestration, but Romney's doomsday prediction is largely an invention of defense contractors — people in an industry that really doesn't want America to stop sending it a blank check.

According to Winslow Wheeler, a defense expert at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), even in a sequestration scenario, Pentagon spending will still amount to almost triple the spending of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Syria — combined. That number is also $30 billion more than what the U.S. spent on average during the Cold War, taking inflation into account.

As the Center for International Policy puts it, "Since 1998, the Pentagon's base budget has grown by 54 percent (adjusted for inflation)... sensible reductions can strengthen U.S. defense capabilities by eliminating waste of limited resources on unnecessary programs."

POGO has outlined many of these unnecessary programs, like the F-35 fighter jet, wasteful nuclear facilities, and my personal favorite — the Littoral Combat Ship, a vessel — worth several hundred million dollars — that has cracks, corrosion, and is practically useless in real combat. If Romney is so worried about the Navy, he could start with scrapping the leaky boats. 

As for the effect of defense cuts on our troops, here's what the contractors really don't want you to know: In FY2011, the Pentagon gave contractors more than $373 billion — far more than what it spent on all uniformed and civilian military personnel. And even if defense contractors suffered all of the sequestration cuts, they would still get more than $300 billion in taxpayer dollars a year, according to POGO National Security Investigator Ben Freeman. So if taxpayers are looking to save money without harming the troops, the solution would be cutting back on the money funneling into defense contractor's pockets.

Still the fabrication of a defense apocalypse continues: A think tank called the Center for Security Policy (CSP) recently put out a report showing devastating job losses in every state if certain defense cuts occur. But guess who is represented on CSP's board of advisors? Major defense contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Ball Aerospace and Technologies, and Hewlett-Packard, according to Jason Vest of The Nation.

Not surprisingly, CSP is omitting some crucial information about the "devastating" cuts: First, that numerous defense experts have pointed out that the Pentagon has a poor record of actually creating jobs. Money designated for the Pentagon more often than not ends up in the hands of defense contractors. Last year, for example, the top executives at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman each received over $25 million in compensation. And, as Freeman points out, the major defense contractors have tens of billions of dollars worth of contract backlogs — so "the notion that sequestration will bring the defense industry to a screeching halt simply isn't true."

If all that isn't enough to convince Romney that he needs to get off the defense contractor train-of-doom, maybe he should start listening to his constituents. According to a study by three good government groups, Americans on average favor much deeper defense cuts than legislators are proposing: Overall, U.S. citizens want to reduce defense spending by about $103.5 billion. 

The Tea Party certainly seems to understand which way the winds are blowing. Lisa Miller, organizer of Tea Party group in Washington D.C. tells me she supported the amendment because it's a "necessary start," adding that she's "hopeful" that the House "is in fact considering cutting more of the spending the military did not request." But of course that would mean the government is actually taking into consideration what the people want — perhaps an even bigger leap of faith than hoping that Romney will get smart about defense spending.

 

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