Sunday, November 27, 2005

If You Want to Cut Pork, Go to the Pentagon

(Here's the post I spoke of in my last entry.)

The Truth Laid Bear wants all good bloggers to support a bill put forth by a handful of conservative Republican Senators called "The Fiscal Watch Team Offset Package", This bill ostensibly offsets the costs of Hurricane Katrina with a bunch of Federal budget cuts to Medicare and a 5% reduction in all domestic spending. This is apparently a litmus test for bloggers and politicians alike. Support the bill with a specific declaration on your blog, and you are a "Porkbuster". Oppose the bill, and you favor profligate government waste. Faithful right-thinking bloggers are then supposed to declare their support on their blogs, to then be highlighted on the TTLB site. Look closer however, and the whole deal appears to be just another right wing attempt to frame opposition to domestic spending as "trimming wasteful pork".

I would like to say "I support the Fiscal Watch Team Offset Package", but I can't. It's a terrible, highly partisan bill that targets all the wrong areas and lets the main sources of government pork go untouched. This "package" would slash domestic spending across the board by 5%, increase Medicare costs and freeze COLA adjustments for non-military personnel. The recent pay hikes for Congressmen are not affected, nor are any military programs. This package is supposed to save $130 billion in 2 years. The fact that the Medicare savings don't accrue to the benefit of the Federal Budget (being an off-budget Trust Fund program) is apparently lost on our intrepid budget cutters.

Well this is just balderdash. Most of the waste in government takes place in the military side of the ledger. In this chart, the red pie slice is the military's portion of all Federal discretionary spending. All, except for one important distinction: the Iraq and Afghanistan operations are funded by off budget emergency appropriations. What you see is the military budget minus our current wars du jour. So when our arch-conservative (and downright loopy) freshman Senator Tom Coburn (R, Mars) exempts all military spending from cuts, he's walking away from the biggest pie slice of all. Of course, that's intentional. The military is the Republicans' third rail, just as domestic spending such as Medicare and Social Security are the Democrats'. This bill therefore is merely a Trojan Horse partisan attack on the Democrats wrapped in anti-pork rhetoric.

If anyone is serious on Capitol Hill about reducing wasteful spending, you have to look at the Pentagon first. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted in 2002 that the Pentagon has lost track of an estimated $2.3 trillion of military transactions. That's $2.3 trillion or over $8,000 for every man woman and child living in the USA. Contrast that with the $77 per person cost of pork identified in the Porkbusters database so far, and the $448 per person that Coburn's bill claims to save. And that before the Iraq War started, before Halliburton snagged those no bid contracts, before those untold billions were unaccounted for in the Iraq reconstruction budget. It's so bad, non-partisan tax watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense said in 2003:

"DOD is by far the most fiscally mismanaged agency. The GAO has said that overhauling the Pentagon's financial management will be a major challenge "that goes far beyond financial accounting to the very fiber of the department's business operations and management culture." In fact, no major part of DOD has ever passed an audit and the Pentagon readily admits that flawed business systems and practices are common within the agency. They claim it would take decades to get all of the agency books in order."

It's not just accounting incompetence though, it's deliberate policy decisions that waste hundreds of billions of dollars. Dr. Lawrence Korb, Asst Secy of Defense under Ronald Reagan, recently wrote a complete analysis of today's military programs. By targeting wasteful weapons systems designed to fight cold war enemies that no longer exist, he's found over $60 billion per year that could be cut from military budgets that actually would strengthen our national security.

Here's just one example from Korb's Report of the kind of unneeded pork we should cut: the V-22 Osprey program. This dog is a tilt rotor craft that takes off like a helicoptor and then flies like a plane. Or at least that's what it's supposed to do. Originally ordered in the 80's, it was dropped by the Army in the late 80's because of enormous technical problems and field test failures. Then-Sec'y of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the program in 1991. It was revived by Congress however and continued to live on in Pentagon budgets ever since. Several serious accidents in continued testing make the Osprey more deadly for our Armed Forces than the entire Kosovo War. The total cost of this dog is up to $50 billion. A little over $500 million was spent on payments to military contractors in FY2003, spread throughout two dozen different congressional districts. This dog should go before it kills any more Marines.

You want another piece of pork to dispense with? It's called "Operation Iraqi Freedom", an unforgiveable boondoggle that wastes $5.8 billion per month. That's $70 billion per year.

Follow Korb's advice on the traditional budget, and follow Congressman Murtha's advice on Iraq, and we'll have saved $260 billion over the next two years while actually strengthening military preparedness. That's twice what the Senator Coburn's package wants to slash, without snatching Medicare benefits from those who need them and slashing every domestic priority we have bedsides.

Dr. Korb presented the idea of his military cuts in October within days of Sen Coburn's Medicare and domestic cut package. But the TTLM "Porkbusters" effort apparently will have none of that. Only domestic programs are attacked in their database they've set up. Yet just that one Marine-killing Osprey program costs more than all of the pork identified in that database put together. So is "porkbusters" just a right wing framing campaign against domestic spending, or are they serious about actually trimming bigtime wasteful spending? It will be very interesting if Korb's recommendations ever makes it on the "Porkbusters" site.


Jason said...

If you're a Libertarian like me, then the military is one of the very few things the federal government should be funding. Social programs should be funded exclusively by the states and private charitable organizations, not the federal government. That means almost all social spending is pork in my book.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment Jason. I think there is a distinction to be made between arguing (1) what the proper functions of government might be versus (2) identifying wasteful spending. The former is a debate on choices, the latter just an accusation of poor execution of those choices. I think there's no problem with having that debate on priorities. I do have a problem with sidestepping the upfront debate by pretending that the issue is stopping "pork".

I also think there is a distinction to be made between funding the military versus spending money on a craft that doesn't work, killS people who test it, and doesn't add any capabilities that other, less expensive and more reliable crafts already provide. Scrapping the Osprey might make it a lot easier to afford kevlar vests and armored humvees for all of our guys in Iraq for example.

Anonymous said...

What your failing to do is produce accurate evidence of where your numbers came from. Clearly you have forgotten to include federal budget items like "entitlements" a.k.a. Welfare, Unemployment, and Social Security as "entitlements" account for over two thirds of the federal budget. The military is legitimate spending within the strict interpretation of the Constitution whereas "entitlement" spending clearly is not a power granted in the Constitution. In fact "entitlements" were introduced as a temporary measure to pull the economy out of the depression and help those who couldn't help themselves. I do see the need for Social Security, but come on Welfare and Unemployment. Basically welfare and unemployment provide an incentive not to work.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard said...

The numbers used for that pie chart you questioned pertain to the discretionary budget, that part of the budget that Congress votes on yearly. Social Security and Medicare are not part of the Federal Budget, as they are run from totally segregated trust funds and funding sources (FICA). Even if they were, they don't amount to 'over two thirds' of the budget. More like about 40-43%. Welfare and unemployment, together with veteran's pensions and all other "means tested entitlements" add up to 13.5% of total Federal spending. Here's the link to the OMB spreadsheet breaking the budget down into percentages:

What's more interesting is that like the respondent before you, you justify some pork as being OK based on your ideological POV re the Constitution, while other pork is not OK on the same basis. I'll respond to you the same way I did to the other gentleman:

"I think there is a distinction to be made between arguing (1) what the proper functions of government might be versus (2) identifying wasteful spending. The former is a debate on choices, the latter just an accusation of poor execution of those choices. I think there's no problem with having that debate on priorities. I do have a problem with sidestepping the upfront debate by pretending that the issue is stopping "pork"."

Kind Regards,