POTUS and the Freeze

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In his first State of the Union address earlier this month, POTUS shocked himself by not receiving applause from Republicans when he touted his own tax-cut credentials thus far. Partisan stereotypes, he learned, are not easily reversed. Then he shocked his own party and perhaps much of his television audience by recommending a spending freeze on nondefense, nonentitlement government programs . . . starting in 2011. First, the original language:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze Government spending for 3 years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary Government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. (January 27, 2010)

This proposal, like so much presidential rhetoric, has undergone a steady evolution since then. As can be expected, the wording is tailored to fit a given audience. At the House Republican issues conference, POTUS framed the topic differently, leaning heavily on the hope for bipartisanship and budgetary restraint:

We know that we’ve got a major fiscal challenge in reining in deficits that have been growing for a decade and threaten our future. That’s why I’ve proposed a 3-year freeze in discretionary spending, other than what we need for national security. That’s something we should do together; that’s consistent with a lot of the talk both in Democratic caucuses and Republican caucuses. We can’t blink when it’s time to actually do the job. (January 9, 2010)

Despite some good-natured nitpicking with his opponents about the details of that plan, POTUS pretty much let the idea speak for itself. And nobody could really fault him for the underlying premise. Among the Democrats a few days later, however, he gave it more attention, phrasing it variously to drive the point home:

Now, we can’t change the past, but we can change the future. That’s why I’m asking you to adopt a freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending for the next 3 years, starting next year. We’re still having a tough time right now, given the economy is just starting to pick up steam, but starting next year. (February 3, 2010)

Apparently, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee needed frequent reminding, even as POTUS fielded questions about renewing the health care reform effort and addressing shortfalls in aid for 9/11 first-responders:

The second thing you already mentioned, is this nondefense discretionary freeze. One thing I want to mention though. It’s not as if we’re not going after defense as well. It’s just it would be irresponsible when we have two wars for me to impose that same kind of limitation, tie my hands not knowing what contingencies may be needed. But if you look at what Bob Gates has been doing in the Defense Department in really going after some sacred cows over at the Pentagon, he’s been serious about it. We’ve already saved billions of dollars. We intend to keep saving billions of dollars more on that front as well. (February 3, 2010)

It’s true that Gates did scrap the notorious F-22 development contract, which had languished for over 10 years in egregious delays and cost-overruns. Most military analysts had long concluded that the huge fighter plane was designed for a Cold War-era military engagement of conventional armies, in which superior airpower is thought to be a decisive advantage. Needless to say, the F-22 would not be that useful in patrolling the caves of Tora Bora and Peshawar. We’ve got remote-controlled spycraft for that kind of thing, which is our main kind of thing these days. The problem is, as Eugene Jarecki has articulated in his film Why We Fight and book The American Way of War, since large military contract projects are strategically distributed across as many as 40 to 45 states, persuading Congress to let a lucrative deal expire is never easy. Ending contracts means losing jobs in the home district or state and losing seats in the House or Senate. So much for defense spending.

But the prospect of cutting any spending gets so complex that even POTUS gets confused by his daring proposal:

All right, so even if we eliminated all foreign aid and all earmarks, it doesn’t solve our problem. And as far as the arguments that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are making, I think it’s important to explain to people that in order for us to balance the budget while exempting entitlements, no new revenues, you’d have to cut nondiscretionary defense spending by 60 percent. Cut it by 60 percent. That’s everything: student loans, NASA, veterans programs. You name it, we’d have to cut by 60 percent—six-zero. (February 3, 2010)

POTUS’s Freudian slip was not insignificant. Presumably, all defense spending is as discretionary as education or highway maintenance, and he’s absolutely right that if we cut it by 60 percent, the resulting budget surplus would make the Clinton-era balances look like a schoolboy’s weekend allowance. In short, we’d be rolling in it. A couple of juicy figures to consider: over half of the entire Federal budget (about 54 percent) goes to military spending; the U.S. spends just under half (between 41 and 47 percent) of what the entire world combined spends on military activity; our nearest rival, China, with more than four times the U.S. population, spends between a seventh and ninth of what we spend. But these are merely clichés, aren’t they?

Well, as POTUS has learned, words do matter. It doesn’t make top headlines anymore, but remember the “coalition of the willing” fighting and sacrificing to liberate the poor Iraqis? Yes, we had the British and the Australians, but also the Nicaraguans and Mongolians and even a two-man contribution from Iceland. Late summer, the Obama administration quietly changed two relevant brand names in that tiresome debacle. “Multi-National Forces—Iraq” devolved into the infinitely more candid “U.S. Forces—Iraq” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has now become “Operation New Dawn.” And although the U.S. military isn’t famous for its subtlety, we can be assured that these revisions were discretionary. As for the budget catastrophe ahead, let us hope that POTUS can deliver us a new dawn.

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