Point / Counterpoint on bipartisanship: political courage can counter dizzying partisan tensions

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Two-party politics is not quite dead yet, but one of the main ways the two parties could gain the confidence of voters is to work together to tackle skyrocketing federal debt and deficits. This may seem counterintuitive, given that the Biden administration has highlighted strong support in public polls for its large spending plans. But record levels of federal spending and the budget deficit remain a big concern for voters, and that fact has not changed for a decade.

Gallup recently reported that nearly half of voters were “very” concerned about federal spending and the budget deficit. Another 28% worry about a “reasonable amount”, which means that more than three-quarters of voters are at least somewhat worried. These numbers are down from public concern in 2011 (when 87% were worried about a “good deal” or “good amount”), but are high enough that lawmakers care.

It would be great if lawmakers started by tackling the unsustainable growth in mandatory spending (including expensive programs like Medicare and Social Security), which accounted for 66% of total federal spending during the fiscal year. In progress. These programs are the main drivers of spending growth and could be disproportionately responsible for any future debt crises the country faces.

In the absence of a big deal on rights reform, however, lawmakers must seek smaller but meaningful compromises to shrink the discretionary spending pie that Congress controls. The starting point is the budget of the Ministry of Defense.

Why? Defense is the largest portion of the discretionary federal budget, reaching $ 715 billion authorized by Congress in the previous fiscal year. Military spending typically accounts for more than half of the discretionary budget passed by Congress and is expected to reach over $ 900 billion annually by the end of the decade. And, as is often the case with the federal government, military spending is plagued by waste, inefficiency and misallocation of resources.

It’s hard to believe, but responsible and meaningful cuts to the military budget were once a bipartisan endeavor. President Ronald Reagan has presided over genuine military cuts in four of his eight years as president. In 1985 and 1986, Reagan and a divided Congress worked together to enact significant defense cuts of 3.8% and 3.1%, respectively (adjusted for inflation), with wide bipartisan margins. Over the next two years, they accepted additional, albeit smaller, cuts.

If Biden and Congress were now doing exactly what Reagan and Congress did in 1985 or 1986, we would be looking at military spending next year close to or less than $ 700 billion – still a staggering sum from which we can more. that allow us to defend the nation – instead of three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Of course, Reagan first asked for and received big increases in his first term, and his last Defense Department budget was 7.4% higher than his first. But given that the current Pentagon budget has grown 36% in real terms over the past 20 years, some bipartisan cuts – in the pattern of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton cuts of the 1980s and 1990s – are long overdue, d ‘especially since the United States is ending 20 years. of war. Even a very modest 3% reduction from last year’s baseline – less than Reagan’s cut in 1985 and 1986 – would mean $ 10 billion reduction from Biden’s current Pentagon budget of $ 715 billion. dollars.

If lawmakers and officials in the Biden administration can muster the courage to make defense budget cuts, where should they start? An inter-ideological group of civil society organizations and budget experts have a roadmap, outlining up to $ 80 billion in potential cuts for the coming fiscal year alone. They include sound recommendations such as stopping additional purchases of problem-plagued and extremely costly F-35 aircraft (savings of $ 11.4 billion), reducing unnecessary service contracts by 15% (savings $ 28.5 billion) and the cancellation of the Ford-class aircraft carrier (savings of $ 12.5 billion per carrier).

Military hawks will complain that budget cuts will make us less well placed to face foreign adversaries like China and Russia – as they complained about Reagan’s proposed military budgets during the Cold War. But as a former Reagan Deputy Secretary of Defense explained in a recent opinion piece, the US military is overshadowing China both in terms of budget and many other parameters.

Simply put, Congress and the Biden administration can afford to make modest, bipartisan cuts to the defense budget. Big expenses don’t make us more secure.

Andrew Lautz is director of federal policy for the National Taxpayers Union (ntu.org) in Alexandria, Virginia.

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