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Opinion

No more Pentagon budget games

Real security needs, not an arbitrary baseline, should drive the numbers.

By Robert Higgs / March 4, 2008



Oakland, Calif.

Despite his many shortcomings, former President Jimmy Carter had one good idea that, in view of President Bush's recent $3.1 trillion federal budget proposal, deserves a fresh look: zero-based budgeting.

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Properly understood, zero-based budgeting for the government means that agencies would start the budget cycle with no money. The year's budget is then created not by adding to the current budget "baseline," to reflect the rate of inflation and new programs or mandates legislated by Congress, but by looking at the agency's mission and goals, the obstacles that stand in the way of accomplishing those goals, and what it would take – programs, personnel, equipment, and dollars – to overcome those obstacles.

Consider the proposed $515.4 billion fiscal 2009 Pentagon budget. To listen to Pentagon officials, the half-a-trillion-dollar Pentagon budget – which doesn't include the nuclear-weapons program (located in the Department of Energy) or the supplemental funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – is not only reasonable, but lean. They arrive at this conclusion by expressing the budget as a percentage of America's gross domestic product (GDP).

The public is then informed that in terms of GDP Washington is spending far less today on the military ("just" 4 percent of GDP) than during either the Korean War (13 to 14 percent) or the Vietnam War (7 to 9 percent). For real dramatic contrast, we're reminded that military spending during the peak years of World War II was in the 37 to 38 percent range.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are experienced at this game. As Mr. Mullen puts it, "I really do believe this 4 percent floor is … really important, given the world we're living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global, not just in the Middle East."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell sings the same song. "The secretary believes that whenever we transition away from war supplementals, the Congress should dedicate 4 percent of our GDP to funding national security. That is what he believes to be a reasonable price to stay free and protect our interests around the world."

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