Since the start of the 112th Congress, the U.S. House Republican majority – with its dozens of new Tea Party members – has been telling the American people our country is “broke.” During the budget debate, Tea Party Republicans argued the unprecedented fiscal crisis demands huge spending cuts to vital programs and investments that make our communities strong. Then, starting with H.R. 1, House Tea Party Republicans voted overwhelmingly for massive cuts to food safety, public safety, education, life-saving health research, roads and bridges, clean energy alternatives, and nutrition for hungry children and nursing mothers.
Cut $650 million from emergency nutrition assistance for hungry infants and mothers? Tea Party Republicans said yes. Cut $35 million from food safety and food inspectors that keep families healthy and safe? Tea Party Republicans said yes. Cut $1.3 billion from community health centers for the poor? Tea Party Republicans said yes.
But when the $649 billion Pentagon funding bill for Fiscal Year 2012 reached the House floor, Tea Party Republicans’ dire fiscal warnings and collective eagerness to cut government spending disappeared. Instead they turned on the spending spigot to full blast.
Numbers tell the story
The numbers tell this expensive story. The Tea Party Republican majority passed a $17 billion increase to the defense budget while slashing funding for everything else. At $649 billion, the Pentagon’s budget amounts to more government spending than all other federal agencies combined. This price tag also accounts for over 50 percent of all unrestricted spending in the federal budget. In fact, this level of spending approaches 45 percent of global defense spending, almost as much as every other country on the planet combined!
Tea Party Republicans talk endlessly about deficit reduction, cutting government spending, shrinking government, and cutting investments benefiting middle and low-income families, but defense spending continues to grow.
Tea Party Republicans claim defense spending increases are essential for national security. But Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen doesn’t agree. He believes the Pentagon has not been forced to cut unnecessary or ineffective spending. Earlier this year, Chairman Mullen said, “…with the increasing defense budget, which is almost double, it hasn’t forced us to make the hard trades. It hasn’t forced us to prioritize. It hasn’t forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn’t forced us to limit ourselves…”
Since 2001, the Pentagon’s budget increased by 70 percent. The enormous size and rapid growth of the defense budget means that any member of Congress who is not working to slow defense budget is not serious about deficit reduction.
The fiscal crisis facing America makes eliminating unnecessary spending, ineffective programs, and wasteful tax breaks essential. There can no longer be sacred fiscal cows – including the Department of Defense.
I scoured the 2012 defense budget to identify spending cuts that would promote fiscal responsibility without compromising national security. In other words, how do we cut the extras, not the essentials?
During debate on H.R. 2219, I offered three amendments to accomplish this goal. The first one cuts $124.8 million from the Pentagon’s $324.8 million budget for military bands. The second one cuts $150 million for the military’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which has the Pentagon starting business ventures in Afghanistan, including sourcing cashmere for New York fashion designer Kate Spade. The third amendment limits military recruitment spending on subsidies to private motorsports companies such as NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association to $20 million, down from an estimated $63 million.
Military music. Mission creep. Corporate welfare. That is what my budget cuts targeted. The $320 million in savings from my amendments are modest by Pentagon standards, but, in the midst of a fiscal crisis, I feel a responsibility to cut every dollar of spending that is not central to the military’s core mission of protecting Americans.
Some Tea Party Republicans dismissed my cuts as insignificant reductions in the context of the overall budget. But that is not the “every dollar counts” approach they took when slashing funding investments in America’s families and communities. Tea Party Republicans justified their $35 million cut to food safety by arguing it was imperative for deficit reduction. Cutting $40 million in handouts to NASCAR racing team owners and millionaire drivers will not diminish military recruitment or undermine our national security. We must protect essential investments that keep America strong and then focus our spending cuts on the extras we can no longer afford – including taxpayer funded NASCAR sponsorships.
The latest debate on defense spending should be a wakeup call for America. Without support for reduction in defense spending, it will be almost impossible to put the country back on a sustainable fiscal course.
Rep. Betty McCollum represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District. She serves on the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.