The disconnect between hawks and deficit hawks

THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN HAWKS AND DEFICIT HAWKS…. The price tag on the defense appropriations bill approved by the House last week was pretty stunning: $726 billion. It’s far higher than the totals from the Bush/Cheney administration because, when Republicans were in charge, they played budget games and funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan separately.

Given the enormous amount of money going to the Pentagon — we now spend about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined — Paul Waldman raises a good question.

[W]here are all those “fiscal conservatives” who said that it just cost too darn much to extend unemployment benefits? That we have to live within our means, and stop borrowing money? That the government needs fiscal discipline? That the deficit is a time bomb that will obliterate us all?

Where were they? Nowhere. They’re quite happy to borrow hundreds of billions to spend on defense, because they just happen to like spending money on defense. They don’t find unemployment benefits, or health care, or any of a hundred other things we could spend money on to be particularly worthy, but instead of just saying so, they say, “Well, we’d love to, but we just can’t afford it.” You can’t call yourself a “deficit hawk” if the only programs you want to cut are the ones you don’t like anyway.

Well said. It’s a reminder that when Republicans block domestic spending on areas like extended unemployment insurance, what we’re seeing is a reflection of priorities — the already-enormous Pentagon budget is important (even if it means funding programs the Defense Department doesn’t want) and struggling families aren’t.

It’s also a reminder that Republican talk about fiscal responsibility is a shallow scam. Putting aside the fact that GOP interest in the issue is quite new — these are, after all, the same Republican officials who added $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years — it’s also incredibly narrow. They want to reduce the deficit, but if you raise the prospect of tax increases, now that tax rates are at their lowest rates since the days of Harry Truman, they balk. They want to get spending under control, but if you even mention modest cuts to the breathtaking Pentagon budget, the GOP looks for a fainting couch.

Meanwhile, with European countries embracing austerity measures, what’s on the chopping block? Their defense budgets, of course. Prominent conservative voices like to say that we should do what Greece and others in Europe are doing, and look to scale back dramatically, but they’re apparently hoping we don’t pay too close attention to the kind of measures getting cut.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, publicly and repeatedly, that the United States can’t keep spending such vast amounts of money on the military indefinitely.

If conservative deficit hawks are inclined to agree, now would be a good time to say so.

Update: Bruce Bartlett had some interesting analysis on this issue last week.