The Rasmussen report, correctly in my opinion, implies budgets to support veterans should also be included when comparing total US defense budgets to those of other countries. But this addition is only one of many. The table below was compiled by friend Winslow T. Wheeler, who spent many years as a staffer on Senate Budget Committee trying to sort out how much we actually spend on defense. Note that the "National Defense Total" is the same as that in Table 5.1 of the Presidents historical tables. As you can see, the entire picture is quite complex, but adding in indirect defense induced/related budgets results in an annual security budget of just over $1 trillion for 2011.
Source: Winslow T. Wheeler, Director Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information
So, in answering the first question: how large is the current defense budget? Reasonable estimates place it between $739 billion and $1 trillion for 2011 -- take your pick.
According to Rasmussen's poll, 64% of the people think this is about right or too small, and only 58% think this range is more than that of other nations. This brings us to the second question: How does our defense budget compare with the defense budgets of other nations?
The most recent estimates for China and Russia, the nations with the next two largest defense budgets, compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are for 2009
. If one assumes that recent growth rates continued through 2010 and 2011, and we added in estimates for the effects of inflation, the estimate for China's current defense budget would rise to $125 billion and that of Russia would rise to $69 billion. Bear in mind, these are very rough estimates, but this estimate for China's is higher that that used by Rasmussen, and therefore more conservative in a comparative sense.
These numbers tell us that the US defense budget is between six and eight times as large as that of the next largest nation. (Bear in mind, we are ignoring the contributions of our Allies in NATO, Japan, etc.) Note that only 25% of the likely voters interviewed think we should spend more than three times as much as the next largest nation, but at the same time, 64% think the current budget is about right or too small. One wonders how this response would have changed if Rasmussen asked the real question: Do you think we should continue to spend between six and eight times as much as the next largest nation?
Are you beginning to get a feel for how cognitive dissonance creeps in to shape the debate over the defense budget?
The people whose opinions are being sampled have good reason to be confused. In fact, their cognitive dissonance reflects a tiny tip of the iceberg that is Madison's nightmare. On 26 January, that farce-tragedy mutated into a comic opera.
First a little background.
For years, Pentagon decision makers have admitted, and members of Congress have understood, the Pentagon can not keep track of the money Congress authorizes it to spend, for the simple reason that the Pentagon's bookkeeping systems are an un-auditable shambles. This is an old problem that I, among others, have been writing about since the late 1970s. Auditability and transparency go to the heart of the idea of a representative republic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people must be answerable to people.
That is why accountability is an absolute requirement of the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution, which assign the power of the purse to Congress. This was made an explicit legal requirement by the enactment of the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, which required the Inspector General of each agency in the Federal government to certify that its agency was in fact accounting for the funds Congress gave it.
Yet to date, the Pentagon has been unable to comply with the requirements of this law. I testified about this problem many times to Congress -- and I refer interested readers to my last statement to Congress
in June 2002, which pretty well summed up this mess, describes its ramifications, and describes one pathway toward fixing the problem. My sources in the Pentagon tell me the situation is worse today than it was in 2002.
The Pentagon leaders in successive administrations have addressed this problem by urging patience, telling Congress repeatedly the Pentagon has a plan in place to solve the audit problem. That is true, the Pentagon does have a plan, but it is what we in Pentagon used to call a "cape job," because decision makers in successive administrations keep moving its deadlines further into the future. Obama's Pentagonists are just the most recent in a long line of snake oil peddlers. John Hamre, the Comptroller and Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration, for example, promised to fix the problem by 1996. After a couple of stretch outs in the Bush Administration, Obama's minions are continuing the scam by "promising" to "fix" the problem by 2017 or 2018, long after they are forgotten in the dustbin of history.
Twenty years after passage of the Chief Financial Officers Act, only one conclusion is possible from the repetitive charade: either the Pentagon's leadership is not competent to fix the problem or, more likely, it does not want to fix it. As I explain here
and in the Domestic Roots of Perpetual War
, there is good reason to have a bookkeeping shambles. It serves a useful, if nefarious, purpose: think of it as a kind of intellectual grease that keeps the money flowing throughout the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC) -- a lot of people are getting rich, building careers, and accreting power out of hyping the money flow. While soldiers at the pointy end of the spear and taxpayers are getting hosed, generals are going through the revolving door to big jobs in industry; congressional staffers on defense committees move into high ranking political jobs in the Pentagon, which then gives them a spring board to big jobs with the defense contractors; industry titans move between jobs in industry, the Pentagon, and back to industry; and contractor PAC money flows to congressmen. The result is a self-sustaining harmonious circular flow of money through the political economy of the MICC -- what we in the Pentagon call a self-licking ice cream cone.
This Madisonian farce-tragedy took a thoroughly comic twist on 26 Jan 2011 at a congressional hearing, where the new, "pro-defense" Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and card carrying member of the MICC, Buck McKeon (R-CA), signaled his objection to the tiny reductions in the defense budget that President Obama was recommending in the name of improved economic "efficiencies." After the hearing, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the HASC readiness subcommittee amplified McKeon's signal by invoking a truly bizarre leap of logic: Forbes argued
that, since the Pentagon doesn't really know where the money is being spent, then perhaps it should not talk about finding efficiencies!
Welcome, dear reader, to the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac!
I have a better idea for providing the popular information needed to exit Madison's nightmare: Perhaps the Congress ought to use its Constitutional oversight (as opposed to its "overlook") powers to force accountability on the Pentagon in the spirit of the Constitution.