Republicans have long complained about the fiscal profligacy of the Democratic party, and it’s about time someone had the cojones to challenge the GOPs sacrosanct white elephant: defense spending. Because large corporations like Lockheed Martin can funnel millions into political campaigns, veterans and soldiers (and their families) create a massive voting block, and national defense is an easy slogan, America has seen its defense budget needlessly and uncontrollably burgeon, from $432 billion in 2002 to $692 billion in 2011 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Since Vietnam, the Democratic Party has had a reputation for being weak on national security issues, so Democrats timidly assent to demands for more spending lest they find themselves lambasted by attack ads.

Republicans, on the other hand, have had since Reagan a penchant for libertarian rhetoric on one hand and massive handouts on the other. Senate Republicans, for instance had no qualms appropriating $380 million for the widely lambasted MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System). Even though the Congressional Budget Office recommended Congress “terminate” MEADS, Richard Shelby (R – Ala) expressed support for the program, calling it “the right thing to do.” The program office is located in his home state.

Since Republicans are happy to reign in any spending other than military spending, they have a vice grip on the military voting block. The party is currently polling at 58 percent among soldiers and veterans (compared to 46 percent nationally). And the military voters are well rewarded: The United States has the most pervasive and exhaustive military-industrial complex in the world. The military saps up 20 percent of the federal budget, at nearly $711 billion (the closest competitor, China spends a relatively meager $143 billion). It has increased by 9 percent each year from the decade between 1999 and 2009. During the recession, military spending remained safe behind the bulwark of Republican support while infrastructure spending decreased. Infrastructure spending is clearly in the public good and in a recession can be a potent multiplier. In contrast, military spending often goes to technology that is either useless (Star Wars) or entirely unnecessary (more nuclear submarines), and even the Pentagon has proposed $487 billion in cuts over the next decade. That spending is all funneled through massive corporations (Boeing) that contract only with the Department of Defense, and military bases that support entire local communities.

But even small cuts are met with huge opposition. Of course, the true cost of military spending is in opportunities lost. Every billion spent on defense is a billion away from the school system, from public goods, from highways and environmental programs. And while the United States is number one in defense spending (spending more than every other country combined) it lags behind Europe and China on infrastructure spending. The highway system was rated D- by the American Corps of Civil Engineers, who estimate that infrastructure in America needs a $2.2 trillion investment over the next five years (a bit less than half the estimated cost of Iraq and Afghanistan).

But the greatest cost exposes the greatest hypocrisy of the Republican Party: while the party laments the budget deficit to justify tax cuts on the wealthy or cuts to Medicaid, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and school lunch programs, it refuses to accept that defense spending is partially responsible for the massive deficits. Two-thirds of all discretionary spending goes to defense ($851 billion for defense and $410 billion for non-defense in 2013). Admiral Michael Mullen recently said that the national debt is the greatest threat to national security. Ironically then, the huge amount of money apportioned to defense is threatening not only the nation’s economic security but also its military security. If he truly wishes to protect his country, Admiral Mullen could perhaps consider resigning his post and set into reality the eventual demise of the suffocating military-industrial complex.

The defense budget doesn’t need to be this big. The defense budget has grown at an unprecedented level in the past 13 years, the greatest and most prolonged build-up of the past half century. In the past military spending decreased when the war was over. As President Dwight Eisenhower said:

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.

President Richard Nixon decreased military spending in real terms every year he was in office, and Reagan decreased spending during his last four years. Even some Republicans have joined in the war: Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) budget included $1 trillion of defense cuts that he says would not endanger national security.

It was a Republican, Eisenhower, who famously warned the country of the problem with a massive military industry in his farewell address,

We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast
proportions…. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… [for the] very structure of our society.

Now the coming fiscal cliff has presented Congress with no option. At the end of the year, politicians must either compromise or institute draconian cuts. Republicans need to work with Democrats to dispose of the burdensome white elephant weighing on the budget. More Republicans need join Coburn and rally around the principles of true fiscal conservatism – but if past precedent serves as a guide, it is more likely they will resort to partisan bickering.

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Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee.