Posted on October 5, 2001
Our national priorities are scandalous
When interviewed about the events of September 11th, Republican congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, in a fit of exasperation, said something that few members of either party would have been willing to say at any time before that day.
"This is a failure that was caused by a lack of resources, and by a complacency that set in in America over the past ten years," he said, "... a complacency that convinced all of us that with the demise of the Soviet Union there were no more threats. It's a tragedy that it took the loss of thousands of lives to wake this country up and realize that our number one responsibility is not education -- and I'm a teacher -- and it's not health care -- I'm married to a nurse -- it is in fact the security and the safety of the American people."
It's a shame that this obvious truth was not as apparent to America a month ago as it is today. Through the federal government, we've been spending so much of our attention and money on trifles -- like taxpayer funding for the arts, federal programs to organize neighborhood basketball games, and insurance coverage to supply federal employees with Viagra -- that national defense has become one of our lowest priorities.
In a Sept. 19th press release, Citizens Against Government Waste says that it has identified $386.6 million in pork barrel spending in the Interior Department appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2002, adding, "This is enough to purchase 386 Tomahawk Missiles, 9,414 Sidewinder Missiles or 25 F-15 fighters." And that conclusion is based on the funding for just one of the fourteen cabinet departments, for only a single year.
With that in mind, consider the following observation made by New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler:
"Up until a few years ago, we had an F-16 fighter wing here in New Jersey that would be capable of intercepting one of those planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. They decreased the number of wings that were available to do that, so the result was that the closest fighter wing that had the capability to intercept one of those planes was in Massachusetts. They couldn't get here in time, and that's why the second plane flew into the World Trade Center."
We should not have needed an atrocity to tell us what we'd been told by common sense all along, that the weakening of America's national defenses exposes Americans to acts of violence.
Where have our priorities been, that one of the issues in last year's presidential campaign was whether or not a particular classroom in a particular Florida public school contained one chair too few? How is it that a bipartisan commitment to maintaining a budget surplus prevents us from adequately replenishing our depleted military resources, yet it didn't stand in the way of a new entitlement program for prescription drugs? Why is it that politicians react as if a "cut" in any program's rate of increase will result in calamity, but they've consistently been willing to make deep, actual cuts in the amount spent on our national defense without expecting any consequences whatsoever?
It's inexcusable to deprive our military of so much as a dime as long as we continue to fund such frivolities as public broadcasting. Shortly after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1995, they began holding hearings into the possible elimination of taxpayer funding for PBS. As if in a parody of liberal political discourse, Rep. Nita Lowey (D, N.Y.) brought Ernie and Bert hand puppets to appear as "witnesses" at a subcommittee hearing, where they begged cold-hearted conservatives not to exterminate them. Absurdly, this was the turning point in the debate, as Lowey's puppet show succeeded in rallying public support.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the U.S. military budget has been cut by approximately 40 percent since 1985. We have fewer ships, tanks and aircraft than we did then, and the ones we still have are that much older. This trend has failed to capture America's attention the way countless manufactured "crises" have done. Yet the voters were active enough in the PBS debate that representatives from both parties circled the wagons in order to protect the endangered muppets.
This situation has not developed accidentally. Ever since the end of the Cold War, advocates of various social spending programs have sought to fund their efforts by reducing spending on national defense, thereby reaping a "peace dividend." Not that the demise of the Soviet Union didn't justify some reduction in military spending, but the explicit identification of the Pentagon as a source of funds for other areas has put into motion a vicious cycle. As a result, our national defense budget has been transformed into a slush fund for every legislator's pet projects.
In 1999, congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D, D.C.) introduced a bill called the Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act, which was based on the "peace dividend" model. It read in part, "The United States Government shall ... redirect resources that are currently being used for nuclear weapons programs to use ... in addressing human and infrastructure needs such as housing, health care, education, agriculture, and environmental restoration."
This bill has never been passed into law, but it does illustrate the way that some of our elected officials view our military budget -- as a misapplication of tax money that rightly belonged to them and their paternalistic ideals. Once it is established that defense is competing directly with education, housing, etc., for every dollar, then it follows that every dollar that is spent on defense amounts to deprivation of the needy. What politician is going to be willing to take money away from The Children, and spend it instead on guns?
This conflict has been compounded by the budget surpluses of recent years. After eight years of the Clintons' open hostility toward the U.S. military, George W. Bush promised to "rebuild" American defenses. "Help is on the way," Dick Cheney assured us during the 2000 campaign. While Bush has come through with increases in funds for military pay and housing, his promise to the armed forces that he will "give them the tools they need" has not materialized, as the procurement budget, which is used for purchasing weapons, is cut by 0.8 percent in the FY '02 budget. Moreover, Bush is soon to approve another round of base closings, as part of his modernization plan -- a plan which, so far, has been heavy on out-with-the-old and light on in-with-the-new.
President Bush had hamstrung himself when he pledged he would protect the mythical Social Security and Medicare trust funds, meaning that the government must continue to run a surplus. Since future economic activity spurred by this year's tax refunds will have no positive impact on tax revenues until next year, those refunds reduced the amount of revenue that would be available for defense without "raiding" Social Security. Further diminishing that amount was the 11.5 percent increase in education spending that Bush had made his top priority during the campaign.
Each of our past three presidents has pronounced that he would prioritize education above all else, but how responsible is that, really? Even if we were to assume, in contradiction of the evidence, that federal control of education produced positive results, that should never be the top priority of the Commander-in-Chief of the world's only superpower, who is still, even now that the Cold War is over, "the Leader of the Free World." A president's foremost responsibility to The Children is to allow them to grow up free of harm from foreign enemies, not to give them access to the Internet from their classrooms.
Waiting behind budget surpluses and education in the pecking order, our armed forces have been left hoping that maybe help would be on the way in 2003, or 2004. That wait is now over. We've been forced into what we must assume will be a long-term military action, and it is going to require a massive and immediate infusion of resources into the defense budget. We must also accept right now that this is going to result in significant budget deficits. The lockboxes be damned.
This is where our federal spending priorities have led us: to the point where our only two options that are considered realistic are to continue to watch our national defenses crumble, or to fortify them by spending money we don't have. The obvious alternative, making up for the increased military budget by cutting nonessential spending elsewhere, has not yet occurred to our representatives on Capitol Hill.
The House of Representatives has just voted 291-120 to hand out $170 billion in farm subsidies over the next ten years. The bill would create a new subsidy for peanut farmers, as well as reinstating the ones for honey, wool and mohair, which had been repealed with such fanfare in 1996. President Bush has sharply criticized the proposal, but he'll be powerless to do anything about it if the Senate passes the bill by the same veto-proof margin that the House already has.
Far from taking the loss of the budget surplus as a hint that they have to control their spending, our legislators seem to be treating it as a license to spend even more, as if the appearance that there will be deficits anyway has liberated them from even trying to balance the budget. Having collected a peace dividend for the last ten years, Congress now looks determined to capitalize on a war dividend.
When defense spending is cut due to budget constraints, that doesn't stop us from spending hundreds of billions of dollars on frivolous programs. When we are attacked, and emergency defense resources are required, the rest of the spending continues unabated, whether we have the money to pay for it or not.
Protection of ourselves and our allies is practically the only purpose for which funding is subject to budgetary conditions. That means it is assigned a lesser importance than every initiative whose funding is treated as unconditional -- including corporate welfare, the National Endowment for the Arts, and foreign aid to, among other countries, Afghanistan.
What that says about us, as a society, is scandalous.
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