As budget negotiations creep closer to the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline, foreign policy hawks are scrambling to protect the defense budget from major cuts. Downplaying the growing size of U.S. defense spending requires creative math and a penchant for statistical gymnastics. One of the go-to talking points for pro-military industrial complex pundits is to frame U.S. defense spending in context of the Department of Defense’s budget as a percentage of the over all federal budget and of the nation’s GDP.
[T]he Defense Department’s baseline spending, when viewed as a percentage of total federal spending, has generally declined since 2003. And when viewed as a percentage of gross domestic product, the Pentagon’s baseline budget has stayed relatively constant at levels between 3 percent and 4 percent.
The percentage of federal spending devoted to the core defense budget…has actually declined over the last ten years from 15.6 percent to 14.6 percent.Baseline defense spending as a percentage of GDP in recent years has been at a level lower than any time since 1940 except for the Clinton administration’s “procurement holiday,” which extended through the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 budget.
However, measuring the Pentagon’s budget as a percentage of the total federal budget is meaningless in this context. The reason defense spending has decreased as a percentage of the budget is not because the U.S. is spending less on defense, it’s because national priorities have shifted over time.
Moreover, pegging military spending to GDP might be useful for private industry seeking a market share of the U.S. economy , but it’s virtually unheard of to link national security to the percentage of GDP expended on defense. Portraying the defense budget in these contexts sidesteps the reality that defense spending has ballooned over the past 10 years. Between 2001 and 2011 the Department of Defense’s base budget, which excludes war and nuclear weapons funding, grew from $390 billion to $540 billion, an increase of 38 percent:
While neoconservatives, particularly those connected to the Foreign Policy Initiative, have made every effort to suggest that defense spending has stayed the same — or, as Robert Kagan tried to argue, that DoD “has no domestic constituency” — the FPI and its affiliates are making every effort to shield the defense budget from the dramatic budget cuts under discussion in Washington.