FOR the true blue deficit hawks, budget seriousness will always begin, continue, and end with a discussion of entitlement reform. If you aren't talking about Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, then you aren't talking about deficit reduction, in their view.
But there are other parts of the budget, as I understand it. In fact, defense and security spending takes up as large a share of the budget as Social Security—about a fifth. What's more, a lot of that spending seems somewhat unnecessary. American military spending is more than twice the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, and most of the other large military spenders in the world—who also spend much less than America, collectively, on defense—are allies, like Britain, France, and Australia.
One could make a tortured argument about overwhelming military superiority as an effective deterrent, but it seems at least as likely that having all that military equipment lying around makes America more likely to involve itself in wars here, there, and everywhere. And in the end, the simplest explanation for the massive size of the federal defense budget is that extremely powerful interests have aligned themselves behind it. Military leaders want increased spending, and they are very difficult to defy publicly. Defense contractors want increased spending, and they have a great deal of money to throw at Congress. And Congress wants increased spending, because military bases and installations, and defense industry facilities, provide millions of jobs in Congressional districts all across the country. The icing on the cake is that the Democratic party has been the more fiscally responsible in recent decades, but every Democratic leader in Washington is scared of developing a repuation as soft on national defense issues.
The long and short of it is that the defense budget changes in size in one way, and one way only, absent extraordinary circumstances. One might even argue that only the most hawkish of deficit hawks would dare take on such a budgetary juggernaut, mightn't one?
The White House yesterday did something that should truly warm the hearts of deficit hawks everywhere: it threated to veto the 2010 military authorization bill over two big spending issues -- the F22 and the alternate engine for the F35.
A little background. Although both of these programs were questioned for years by the Bush White House, Congress kept insisting that the Pentagon spend the money anyway and the president always went along. This year, The F22 was a target of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ....
The Obama veto threat is a much bigger deal than it seems.
First, the White House didn't have to do it. It's threating to veto an authorization bill that, even if it's adopted, won't actually spend any money. That will happen later in the year with the appropriation. That means that the administration is drawing the line now and trying to stop the spending for both programs from gaining any momentum. That's a good sign.... Second, the veto threat came in the midst of the much bigger fight for the White House on health care. The White House could have backed away so that it didn't antagonize the members who support these programs... but it didn't. Again, another good sign for deficit hawks who want proof of the president's devotion to reduced spending...
Everyone has been asking Mr Obama to show that he's serious about fixing the budget. This would seem like evidence that he is.
This article originally appeared on The Economist.com