Point of View

Sequestration aside, it's time to cut defense spending

August 2, 2012 

South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney recently pulled off a remarkable comeback on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. An amendment he proposed last year to freeze the defense appropriation failed by a more than 2-to-1 margin. But a few weeks ago he offered the same amendment to next year’s appropriation and resoundingly won, 247 to 167.

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans are willing to give the Pentagon a fiscal pass, yet helping Mulvaney to debunk that myth were North Carolina Republican Reps. McHenry, Coble and Jones.

Cutting from the military inevitably involves hard choices and tangible consequences – including the job losses that come with any change in government spending. Still it is a decision that many Americans are ready to make when given the chance to examine the issue for themselves. And it’s the right one, both for the country and for North Carolina as the most military-friendly state.

Three nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations – the Program for Public Consultation, the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity – surveyed a representative sample of Americans in April on just this issue. Participants examined the defense budget from a variety of perspectives, weighed several key positions and then built the budget they thought best.

Three-quarters trimmed it down, with no statistical difference between congressional districts according to the financial benefit they receive from the defense budget. Only 6 percentage points separated districts held by a Republican from those controlled by a Democrat.

Of course, attitudes like this depend heavily on how the issue is presented. Enter a special-interest lobby called the Aerospace Industries Association. AIA is fixating on resisting one of the more extreme savings mechanisms, an automated process known as “sequester.” Sequester isn’t the right way to generate savings, but AIA hasn’t been content to let it collapse under its own illogic. Instead it has exaggerated the scenario’s employment impact, in part by altogether ignoring any jobs created by cutting government spending.

Now AIA is spreading this message in Raleigh, and it is hot on the heels of a visit to Fayetteville by several out-of-state politicians campaigning on the defense budget. U.S. Sens. McCain, Ayotte and Graham raised the alarm on Monday, and AIA amplified it in Wednesday meeting with Gov. Beverly Perdue.

As their collective message reverberates, Perdue should bear in mind two counterbalancing bits of information.

On one hand, an argument emphasizing the job-related benefits of defense spending was convincing to more than half of survey respondents – but was also the least convincing of all the arguments they considered, including those that favored defense cuts. Opinions on this matter are far more nuanced than AIA or the visiting senators assume. Some of the 54 percent that found the jobs issue convincing still decided to cut the budget, for instance, since three out of every four made that choice.

On the other hand, streamlining defense spending offers several worthy benefits if done responsibly. We live at a moment of historic safety for the United States. The threat of nuclear exchange fizzled with the Soviet Union; the war in Afghanistan is ending with bin Laden dead and al-Qaida’s organization decimated; and military rivalry with China, if we choose it at all, is far in the future. Adjusting our defense budget accordingly is part of our strategy to step off the battlefield after more than a decade of war. It likewise will permit us to pay down some debt so that future generations can make their defense budget decisions as freely as we do.

Managing a budget downturn still is difficult – but North Carolina can do it even while continuing to be the most military-friendly state. That most immediately means investing in first-class educational and employment opportunities for veterans, especially during the time it takes the Army and Marine Corps to shed their wartime personnel surge. With respect to industry, state government can best contribute by helping firms diversify into growth areas, defense or otherwise, rather than trying to subsidize businesses that don’t adapt to our strategy.

The appetite for wedge issues in an election year is voracious, and spending on the military is one that might be consumed at the behest of those like Sens. McCain, Ayotte and Graham. But it doesn’t have to be. Reps. Mulvaney, McHenry, Coble and Jones, together with a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives, have set a much better example.

That vote should inspire Perdue. The consensus Mulvaney helped cultivate serves the public interest by bringing spending closer in line with strategy, saving money to help reduce the debt, and allowing North Carolina concentrate on what most makes us military friendly. Special interests should pose no contest to those benefits.

Matthew Leatherman, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and frequent commentator on state political-military relations, is an analyst with the Stimson Center and a co-author of its defense spending survey.

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