It’s the largest federal budget in history. President Obama’s 2011 budget totals $3.8 trillion and contains a deficit of $1.3 trillion. The president’s priorities are clear: jobs and the military. Many people are deeply concerned about the rapidly growing deficit.
With the economy still in recession and unemployment still hovering near 10 percent, the domestic priority is clearly job creation. The budget includes a $100 billion jobs program, with substantial amounts targeted to tax breaks for small businesses in order to stimulate job creation. Also included are tax credits that assist lower-income workers with expenses such as child care, which make it more possible for them to find employment.
Despite the administration’s plan to enact an overall freeze on nonmilitary discretionary domestic spending, it appears that several programs that focus on low-income and poor people were increased. Bob Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted, “Contrary to fears expressed ... that the president’s proposed freeze on total non-security discretionary funding would provide inadequate support for education, for vulnerable Americans, and the like, the budget actually does well in these areas.” It appears that major programs in nutrition, housing, education, TANF, and unemployment are all higher than last year.
But, as usual, the sacred cow that cannot be touched is the military. First, a thanks to the administration for having the honesty to include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the budget, rather than waiting several months and then coming back with requests for supplemental funding, as has been the practice in past years. Let’s at least know up front what we’re dealing with.
In round numbers, the military budget includes an operating budget of $549 billion, plus funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at $159 billion, for a total of $708 billion—making it the largest military budget in history. In addition, the administration plans to request $33 billion for the additional troops sent to Afghanistan this spring, for an 18-month total of $741 billion.
Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, and several other defense experts wrote, “A close analysis of the FY 2011 defense budget reveals that it does not go far enough to impose real fiscal discipline on our defense spending ... There are a number of reasonable cuts that could be made to this portion of the budget without sacrificing national security or undermining our troops.”
The president defends the budget deficit as necessary to continue progress toward ending the recession and assisting people affected by it. While some degree of deficit spending is necessary in a time of severe recession, it is growing so fast that it threatens our future and our children’s futures. I recently had a long conversation with David Walker, author of the new book Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility. Like me, he is deeply concerned about the country’s growing debt, but also concerned that the deficit not be cut on the backs of our poorest people. The most vulnerable must be protected. He also thinks cutting excessive and wasteful military spending must be part of the solution. So here’s a suggestion: Let’s start with the military.
Member of Congress Barney Frank recently told me he will propose a 25 percent cut in the military budget and that he will need help from the faith community. He proposed a similar cut last year, and wrote, “Both parties have for too long indulged the implicit notion that military spending is somehow irrelevant to reducing the deficit and have resisted applying to military spending the standards of efficiency that are applied to other programs. If we do not reduce the military budget, either we accustom ourselves to unending and increasing budget deficits, or we do severe harm to our ability to improve the quality of our lives through sensible public policy.” He’s right, and we will support his effort.
The wars we have been fighting— wars that I have also challenged on many other grounds—are a huge part of the massive deficit we now face. It’s time to stop subsidizing the shameful profits of the “military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about long ago. I would favor spending more on returning veterans, who are too often abandoned when their service is over. But cut the defense contractors who serve their own profits much more than any true idea of national security. Protect the veterans, cut the contractors.
We in the faith community say we subscribe to the biblical injunction to “beat our swords into plowshares.” So let’s be in the middle of the budget deficit debate and push hard for the right priorities. It’s a moral question.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.