To spend even more than the staggering amounts already given to the military, U.S. lawmakers have used the foreign war budget as a “slush fund” to circumvent Pentagon budget caps imposed by law, says William Hartung
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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The House has taken up a spending bill that would add tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon budget. It’s part of an effort from President Trump and the Republicans to expand the already massive amounts of military spending. But they face one hurdle. Their request violates budget caps imposed by law. That doesn’t mean they’ll be stopped. Lawmakers have previously used war budgets, which are separate from the Pentagon, to get around budget caps. Well, a new report says to do that, war budgets would have to be more than doubled in an act of quote, fantasy budgeting. The report is by William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Welcome, William. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. There are a few different proposals being taken up right now. The one from President Trump, as well as other congressional committees. Talk about what they’re proposing and this potential conflict with budget caps on Pentagon spending. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the Trump budget proposal was bad enough. $54 billion above the caps established by law. But Congress took it from there and pushed it higher. The highest figure is the Senate Armed Services Committee at $91 billion above the caps. There was one exception. The Senate Appropriations Committee came in around the level of the caps. Either they’re being more realistic, or they’re just holding their powder until the fall when this all gets worked out. The problem being, as you mentioned, they would have to make unprecedented increases in the war budget, which they’ve already used as a sort of slush fund to pay for things they can’t fit under the caps. I think some of the fiscal conservatives, especially in the House, would think twice about supporting a budget that doubled the war budget, or what they call the Overseas Contingency Operations Account. They’re due for what could be a bit of a train wreck, which I think could be good in the sense that those huge numbers may not hold. It will still be a very high budget by historical standards, but the more egregious proposals may not make it through the process. AARON MATÉ: You know, Bill, I have to note the timing of this conversation. We’re talking about this massive military budget just one day after President Trump, in announcing he’s renewing the ban on transgender members of the military, cited what he called the costs of providing medical treatment to trans members of the armed forces. Can you talk about right now, the real areas of massive spending inside the Pentagon? And more about what you mentioned here, this Overseas Contingency Fund, as it’s called, being separate from the Pentagon, but as a way to pour massive amounts of money into the military. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Sure. Well, I mean the amount of money spent on transgender medical expenses is a drop in the ocean in the Pentagon’s budget. When you look at all the different elements of national security spending, the Pentagon base budget, the war budget, nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, some other defense related expenses in places like the FBI. We’re pushing up to 650 to 700 billion dollars a year. And as it’s been mentioned in some press reports, spending on the Pentagon on Viagra is about 10 times what they spend on transgender medical services. They waste 120 billion dollars over the next five years, 25 billion a year, even just on excess bureaucracy, much less on any weapon system, many of which are not needed. They’re in the midst of a trillion dollar 30 year nuclear weapons build up, at a time when the US has over 4000 nuclear warheads. A few hundred of which would be enough to deter any country from attacking the United States. In the face of a recent proposal at the UN to eliminate nuclear weapons globally altogether. You know, the cost issue I think is a cover story. I think the decision on transgender access to the military is political. I don’t think it has to do with dollars and cents. As for the war budget, even last year a Pentagon spokesperson said, “Well you know, about half of that 30 billion dollars is for what they call enduring requirements,” which means things they’re gonna spend money on anyway, even if we weren’t fighting wars in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, and some of the other places around the world. AARON MATÉ: Okay. The official Pentagon budget is around half a trillion dollars a year, right? Of course, Trump and the Republicans want to even increase that. But that doesn’t account for the actual total spending that goes into the military, some of which you already discussed. What is the actual sum, in your mind? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well if you look at the cost of wars past, present and future, it goes up to over a trillion a year, which is almost double the Pentagon’s base budget. That’s things like, you know, treating veterans. That budget’s 186 billion dollars a year. It’s more than tripled because of the wars of this century. Homeland Security at 50 billion a year. There’s interest on the debt related to the Pentagon, of 100 billion a year. There’s seven billion dollars in military aid that’s located at the State Department. There’s many other elements of the quote unquote National Security Budget. These are costs of having intervention on foreign policy, you know fighting all these wars. AARON MATÉ: That point there about the debt. It’s not just a matter of spending money directly on military spending. Then you have to put billions of dollars more towards paying down the debt that you accrue on having to pay for it. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Exactly. Roughly speaking, they spend about 500 billion dollars a year just to pay the interest on the debt. And by a conservative estimate, about 100 billion of that would be a result of past Pentagon spending. AARON MATÉ: There was a study last year from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, that said if the US just reined in its interventionist policies and narrowed its military focus around the world, that could save about one trillion dollars over the next decade alone. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes. Well, Cato’s a little different because they’re libertarians. Thankfully they don’t share a lot of the conservative views about military intervention, how much to spend on the Pentagon, and so forth, which is why they could take an honest look at what is defense and what is an interventionary foreign policy. They’ve done probably the most thorough look at how much we could save if you had a more narrow view of what US core defense interests are, instead of this kind of global interventionism that has sort of run rampant since 2001. AARON MATÉ: Going back to the budget proposals that are currently before Congress when it comes to military spending. Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington, he said that the current legislation, he called it “the most craven piece of legislation I have witnessed in 20 years.” Do you agree with him? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well I’d have to pass backwards through the last 20 years, but I think it’s certainly a candidate. I think his perspective is, you know, whatever you want to spend on the military, you have to align your strategy with the likely available money. Because they’re just throwing up these fantasy numbers, which they themselves may not even be able to produce at the end of the process. Even a moderate defense would say, “Well, this is chaos.” I mean, if you could only spend a certain amount, you should align your interests, your strategy to that amount. I think that’s part of what he’s driving at. As well as things like, the Congress refuses to close unneeded military bases, which would save billions of dollars a year, and which the Pentagon itself has been advocating. There’s this pork barrel politics element, where nobody wants to give up a base or a contract in their state or district. That locks in Pentagon spending at much higher levels than it should be. AARON MATÉ: Getting back to the budget caps, you have these sequestration limits imposed by Congress, but they’re due to expire in September. In terms of how important it is to Trump and the Republicans to push through their military spending increases, do you think that they’re going to fight to boost the caps? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they’ll need to do that if they want the kind of money they’re talking about. They have made deals in the past. There was a deal called Ryan Murray a couple years ago, that raised 15 to 20 billion dollars caps on domestic and Pentagon spending. The problem with that and this Congress is Trump is trying to make deep cuts almost dollar for dollar what he increases the Pentagon. If the deal they’re trying to make is you can increase domestic spending at the same rate as Pentagon spending, that doesn’t fit with the Republican fiscal conservatives and so it’s not clear how that deal happens. Even if it does happen, that if they could get to these huge levels they would need to get these numbers, they’re throwing it at the wall to see if they might stick. AARON MATÉ: But I should say, William, there aren’t just some who want to raise the cap limits. There are some who want to get rid of the caps at all. What would that mean? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, they’d need new legislation. They’d have to agree, at least for the next five years or so, to significant deficit reduction. They’d have to either increase taxes, cut entitlements, or reduce spending in a consistent fashion. That’s what’s kept this thing in place since 2011, is there’s conflicting ideologies and priorities between Democrats and Republicans, as well as some splits in each of the parties. That kind of deal has to be made at the highest levels. It’s got to be made by the party leaderships, so the Hawks and the Defense Committees aren’t really fully in control of that. AARON MATÉ: Finally, William Hartung, if we had a military spending policy that you could set, what would it look like? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well I think the Cato figure of cutting a trillion over 10 years is reasonable. We probably could go lower, but certainly we don’t need this trillion dollar nuclear weapons build up. We shouldn’t be spending 50, 60, 80 billion dollars a year on the war budget. We should be winding down in Afghanistan, in Iraq and Syria. The Trump administration’s pushing the troops and the spending higher. We don’t need this huge global navy because I don’t think we should be in the business of being ready to intervene anywhere in the glove. We could reduce the numbers of the army, marines, and so forth, if we had a truly defensive policy. So there’s a lot of areas to look, and that’s not even getting started at the tens of billions of dollars of waste that could be eliminated. Certainly we could cut 100 billion, probably quite a bit more from current proposals. Then I think, even at that point, we could have an honest discussion about what do we mean by defense. Then set the budget accordingly. AARON MATÉ: Well, you know, actually let me ask you one more question. In terms of the other ways the US spends money on the military without directly funding the Pentagon budget. What about if the US gives billions of dollars in aid to, say Israel and Egypt and they condition that aid on the purchase of military hardware from the US? Does that count as part of a military spending budget at all? WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, it’s not in the Pentagon budget. It’s in the State Department budget. In normal discussions, it’s not included. I included it in that trillion dollar estimate, but that trillion dollar figure is rarely mentioned in the press. People don’t normally get the full sense of how much of their tax dollars are going for things that are justified on the concept of national security. AARON MATÉ: Just to underline that, when we read in the press about a 500 billion dollar approximate Pentagon budget, you’re saying the real number is actually double that? WILLIAM HARTUNG: If you look at all the different consequences. You know, some people might say, “Well veteran’s benefits are some cost, because obviously we’re not gonna stop taking care of our veterans.” But if you keep pushing these wars, those numbers will just keep going up and up. AARON MATÉ: William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Thanks very much. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.