By Phil Smith
Defense spending has been in the news lately as everyone searches for a comprehensive plan to rescue America from our unsustainable long-term economic path. I’ve seen this discussed from civic clubs to college campuses while traveling the country with a wide range of federal budget experts on behalf of a non-partisan budget watchdog called the Concord Coalition.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to observe that the vast majority of people from the left and the right agree on the “shared sacrifice” theory of solving our immense fiscal challenges. In other words, everything must be on the table: revenue, mandatory spending, domestic spending, and – yes – even defense spending. In fact, we heard something more. Citizens are asking questions about how we spend our money on defense programs, not just “how much.”
One of our experts, the dean of our wonky caravan, is the venerable Alice Rivlin. She and I have driven the roads together from Berkley to Fresno to Palo Alto, from Austin to San Antonio, and even through the sprawl of metro Atlanta, where the traffic was so bad we needed a police escort. She was like a modern day Paul Revere with lights and sirens!
At a recent Stimson Center event, Dr. Rivlin made a comment about responsible defense spending that I strongly believe policy makers need to hear loudly and clearly. She taps into a growing citizen sentiment that I’ve seen first-hand time and time again:
“The rationale for including defense in a deficit reduction plan has invoked the concept of shared sacrifice—everyone contributing in the face of shared danger. I prefer to think of it as shared opportunity, subjecting all spending, defense and domestic to more rigorous tests for efficiency and effectiveness.”
Like Dr. Rivlin, I think voters are ready to put aside most of the parochial interests that lead to bloated budgets and demand more accountability, even with defense budgets. People want a strong military with smart spending, not just heavy spending.
I also see evidence that elected officials are getting that message. In fact, it was in Georgia where I noticed some politicians were starting to address the concern of efficiency. At one of their Atlanta meetings two weeks ago, I spoke with Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Mark Warner (D-VA) about their efforts to fix our future. The conservative Senator from southern Georgia explained, “You’ve got a $700 billion discretionary defense budget that we’re looking at right now. $118 billion of that is for Iraq and Afghanistan. You can’t encroach on that, but still that leaves almost $600 billion in defense spending. If we can’t find some waste, fraud and abuse within that, then we have no business being in Congress. “
Senator Chambliss had similar things to say in a room full of 400 Rotarians dressed in conservative, dark blue suits as they shook their heads in approval. It was practically a chorus of constituents saying “Amen.”
Afterwards, I was reading an Atlanta Journal Constitution blog when I stumbled upon this comment from a fellow constituent, who really nailed it: “Knock me over with a feather, Saxby says defense spending has to be on the table? Yes, I agree. Its time defense contracting was subjected to spending controls and, yes, actual competition . “
It’s not every day that Alice Rivlin and Saxby Chambliss agree on something this big, much less Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Tom Coburn, who started work even earlier on this issue. But they really have it right and are prodded to do more by taxpayers of diverse ideologies.
With huge spending comes huge responsibility. Great defense strategy and great missions will succeed or fail based on the finite numbers of a budget and how we choose to manage it. If the people outside the beltway understand this, and the politicians are starting to get it, are we on the verge of demanding greater efficiency and effectiveness from our military? Let’s hope so. A big part of our future depends on it.
Phil Smith is the National Political Director and the Southern Regional Director for the non-partisan Concord Coalition. He is based in Atlanta.