- - Monday, March 14, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Energy subsidies. Corporate welfare. Catfish-inspection programs. As I detailed in a recent column, the federal budget is rife with spending that is highly questionable, to put it mildly.

No wonder the national debt exceeds $19 trillion. It seems policymakers just can’t say no to anything.

Except when it comes to defense.

For fiscal 2017, President Obama has requested $551 billion for the base defense budget, plus funding for ongoing operations, for a total of $610 billion. That sounds like a lot of money — but only if you overlook a couple of very important points.

One is that these amounts, historically speaking, are extraordinarily low. Few people will be surprised that the U.S. spent more on defense in the Reagan years (the same investment of gross domestic product would be $1.1 trillion annually, on average). But it was $917 billion annually during the Carter years, and $761 billion when George W. Bush was in office.

The military’s budget was even higher during the Clinton years: $624 billion. Now we’re talking about lowering it to $610 billion. As defense expert Justin Johnson recently pointed out, “As a percent of the government spending or total economy, the U.S. has not spent so little on national defense since the end of World War II.”

These progressively smaller budgets have taken their toll. Our shrinking military is stretched thinner than it’s been in years. It’s had to forgo modernization efforts repeatedly. The four branches have been forced to make aging ships, planes and other vehicles last well beyond their intended life spans.

To call this foolhardy doesn’t begin to describe the situation. It’s not as if the world has suddenly become safer. Indeed, we’ve been asking our military to do more with less for years. You can’t fund an adequate defense on the cheap.

Just ask China. Government officials in Beijing recently announced their planned defense budget for 2016 — $147 billion, an amount 7.6 percent higher than last year. It’s only the second time in the last 20 years that the growth in China’s defense budget has been in single digits; they’ve typically been ramping it up even more.

We’re spending less. They’re spending more. What’s wrong with this picture?

Worse, House Republicans have resorted to a ridiculous gimmick with their proposed defense budget. The good news is they’re requesting $574 billion for the base budget — $23 billion more than the president is. All well and good. It’s not enough, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

The problem is how they would get those increased funds. Rather than cutting domestic spending, House Republicans have proposed cutting ongoing operations. “The theory is that a new president will enter office part-way through the fiscal year and would be forced to request an emergency supplemental funding bill to pay for the rest of the year’s military operations,” Mr. Johnson writes.

This may strike some lawmakers as clever, but it’s not. It’s irresponsible. Our elected officials are supposed to be making hard choices when it comes to allocating our tax dollars, not playing chicken with current military operations.

Besides, their opponents are sure to block any bill that doesn’t fully fund such operations, so its chances of success are very low.

There is plenty to cut on the domestic side. We shouldn’t be pitting military operations against military investment. The choice should be between a strong military budget on the one hand (one that should total no less than $661 billion, not $610 billion), and non-defense agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency on the other.

We’ve been underfunding our military for too long. The time to reverse course is now — before the threats metastasizing in hot spots worldwide challenge us to a fight we can’t win.

• Ed Feulner is the founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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