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Grijalva: Military price tag continues to grow needlessly; wise cuts must be made

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Grijalva: Military price tag continues to grow needlessly; wise cuts must be made

We always hear about how polarized the country is, but on most of the big issues there’s a clear public mandate to go in a certain direction. Congress just needs to listen.

The budget is a good example. A Jan. 30 Reason-Rupe poll asked respondents what the country spends too much money on, and the most popular response — at 21 percent, the winner by several points — was “defense/military/wars.” Another category they called “ObamaCare” got 3 percent. Ask fans of multibillion-dollar defense contracts to explain that result to you and you’ll get a blank stare.

In other words, as with immigration reform, marriage equality and just about every other issue Congress is dealing with today, the public is way ahead of Washington.

Defenders of the status quo won’t tell you this. They want to present the issue as strictly about stark threats and existential crises and the need for more spending. Every dollar in cuts from the Pentagon’s massive budget, they say, makes us less safe. Many ideologues can’t find a penny for education but refuse to save money on their favorite weapons system.

The American people have seen through this ruse. The question isn’t whether we should reduce Pentagon spending. That debate is already settled. The bad years of the George W. Bush era are over. The question is how we cut wisely and make sure we help people in the military sector transition as smoothly as possible to new jobs and careers.

As The Washington Post recently reported, “Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion — and that’s before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” That’s right — the cost of the wars isn’t even included in what we think of as the Pentagon budget. President Bush made sure that accounting was done off the books. We’ve been paying for that decision ever since, and we’ll be paying for it many years down the line.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which I co-chair, introduced the Back to Work Budget in February to help solve this problem. We bring our troops home from Afghanistan and return the Pentagon budget to its 2006 level. We don’t cut from military personnel wages. Pensions and benefits, including Tricare, are untouched. The big savings come from reducing needless outsourcing and preventing excessive payments to third parties, which often create the biggest cost overruns.

We get more savings by decommissioning our Cold War nuclear weapons stockpile, another expensive boondoggle you never hear about. We’ve been spending money for decades on maintaining nuclear warheads that everyone knows will never be launched. That money could have been better used just about anywhere else.

The logic of a big military budget goes something like this: “There will always be threats, and we never know what China, Russia, North Korea or some other actor will do in a few years. Keeping our spending high now means preventing wars later. We can’t put a price tag on security.”

We all remember the Bush years, so I leave it up to the reader to decide whether this is a fair description of the argument. The problem with this thinking is that the Pentagon budget, just like any other budget, isn’t a single big number — it’s a collection of individual programs, projects and price tags. When it comes to military spending, these price tags just keep growing. Anyone who calls herself a fiscal conservative should be asking whether that growth is justified, not protecting the Pentagon from calls for more responsible budgeting.

Confusing every dollar spent by the Pentagon with another dollar keeping us safe at night is a rhetorical trick, pure and simple. There will not be another major land war in Europe, Asia or anywhere else in our lifetimes. Economic pressures have reached a point where war is simply not in any country’s best interest. It’s certainly not in the interest of a country like China, often cited by saber-rattlers as a potential future enemy. Yet we spend more on our military than the next 19 top spenders combined. In that huge figure, is there really no money worth saving?

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 7th Congressional District.

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