Thanks to Karaka for letting me guest post again!
I usually keep quiet when those with experience start debating military and foreign policy issues on blogs and elsewhere online. These issues interest me terribly, but I don’t suffer from any illusions that I know half as much as the people I choose to follow on Twitter on these matters. But on the issue of guns vs. butter–or more specifically in this post, guns vs. schoolbooks–I have an informed opinion that goes something like this: Please stop blaming war spending for diminishing the federal investment in education spending. Recent efforts to secure much-needed aid for educator job retention has reignited a long-suffering debate about funding priorities that has me banging my head against the wall.
I represent educators before Congress. Yes, I’m a lobbyist. My colleagues and I enjoy advocating on one of the few “nonpartisan” issues in Congress, if such a thing exists. We have our fair share of dramatic debates, but when it gets down to brass tacks legislators generally agree that education is a good thing. This is similar, I believe, to the widely held post-Vietnam idea in Congress that we must support the troops, regardless of personal feelings about war or defense policy.
Tough times call for tough measures and all federal agencies are preparing for Congress to allot them smaller budgets to complete their work. This includes the Department of Education. But nothing demonstrates the state of our poor economy to many Americans more than this: Even the (discretionary) federal funding juggernaut more commonly known as the Department of Defense is cutting back.
Secretary Gates has gone to great lengths to implore Congress to do away with spending of programs he calls “excess” or “poorly performing” in an effort to streamline DoD. He’s even gone so far as to call for the President’s veto of any appropriations bills that include funding for six projects he opposes (see page one of his June testimony here). He’s also called on his staff to shrink the department’s annual budget by more than $100 billion over five years. (To learn more about why, read the recent CBO report detailing DoD’s ballooning expenses, or the excellent report by Robert Haddick at Foreign Policy.)
Despite these and other efforts, my education colleagues—who I respect and work passionately along side in our efforts to expand the federal investment in education—continue to make the baseless argument that DoD is to blame for shrinking funds for federal education programs. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve suffered through one of my colleagues’ angry diatribes against spending on “the wars” or “DoD” or “the military” I probably wouldn’t be sweating my student loans payment this month. The argument simply doesn’t stand up.
To suggest that funding for any non-DoD program hangs on the funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is naive and shows extreme ignorance of the federal appropriations process. Anyone ever heard of mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare? Let me assure you that these programs are having an impact on available monies legislators have to play with.
Please, let’s have reasoned debate about the benefits of war, the implications of war, even the morality of war. I find myself questioning our efforts “over there” at times, too. But let’s not suggest funding these wars is depriving states of federal education aid. Legislators choose whether or not to appropriate funds. They make choices. Legislators choose to prioritize funding and programs.
Congress has the responsibility to fund defense and education fairly and appropriately. It’s not an either/or debate. The federal government needs to do both better. Let’s face it, they need to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars, generally.
I’m hardly the first to point out the deterioration of reasoned debate and policy development in America. When Congress is involved, there is always plenty of finger pointing to go around. But on this issue, surely we can rise above and realize one priority (national defense) does not undercut the other priority (educating the nation’s youth).
Hi all. Karaka has graciously invited me to post links and observations while she enjoys some time off. I promise not to rant too much since she called me “delightful.” Well played, KP.
Cmd Salamander has an interesting thread going on a proposal from U.S. Representative Barney Frank and others about a “Strategy of Restraint” for federal defense spending (h/t Starbuck). Federal budgets and appropriations are my thing–it’s part of my day job–and I’ve learned over the years to take proposals like this one with a grain of salt. I doubt this proposal, like so many that have come before it, will come to fruition.
But, for the first time since I began working in DC, I’m hearing serious discussion on Capitol Hill–and perhaps more importantly, from DoD–about making real cuts to federal defense funding in the FY11 budget and beyond. To save face, I’m blatantly ignoring the Emergency Supplemental currently being debated on the Hill that would provide funding for Afghanistan, among other things. For those who don’t obsess over the ridiculousness of the federal budget and appropriations process like I do, “emergency” funds fall outside the confines of the congressional budget. (That is to say, when Congress has passed a budget, unlike this year.)
Here’s my point: Is it simply a reaction to the economy that is allowing Congress to willingly gut-check the American purse on defense spending during a midterm election year…while we’re at war? Of course not. But what does it mean for DoD, State, etc. and their efforts domestically and internationally in the coming years?
It’s fair to note that DoD is by no means a solitary target. In fact, President Obama’s FY11 budget request calls for a spending freeze in all non-security discretionary spending. It was Secretary Gates who insisted his Department find considerable savings over the next five years.
Gates said he wants contracts scrutinized more closely for inefficiencies and unneeded overhead. He said the savings could be shifted to support U.S. troops around the globe. Pentagon officials said they’re looking for annual savings in the $400 billion spent on goods and services.
I believe all federal agencies can and should do a better job of using taxpayer dollars responsibly. But this shift in congressional rhetoric on defense spending from both sides of the aisle–albeit stronger on the left–strikes me as telling. Election outcomes aside, where should DoD focus their spending and where should they cut?
As always, Small Wars Journal has some fascinating debate about defense spending and politics generally in their threads. Check it out! (And, as this blog’s host has suggested, send them some money while you’re at it. They’re good people!)
Update: Robert Haddick has authored an excellent article entitled “The Pentagon’s entitlement spending problem” that touches much more saliently than I could ever hope to on some of the issues DoD’s budget is facing now and will continue to face in the future. Well worth the read.
I am utterly bushed, but I couldn’t let the House’s repeal of DADT go unmentioned.
The House of Representatives voted 234-194 to approve an amendment aimed at ending the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allows homosexuals to serve in secret but expels them if their sexual orientation becomes known.
What a wonderful thing to kick off Memorial Day. And not even as dramariffic as Blog Kerfluffle Mark II: How the Axe Swings!
It’s a good weekend to feel patriotic. I hope you all enjoy it.
I finished reading Charlie Wilson’s War this weekend. I had eschewed it in part because the film came out while I was in graduate school, and it looked so cavalier about the region and foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it really turned me off; I never tracked down the book because I foolishly assumed it was as overblown and pompous as I thought the film to be.
Never let it be said I don’t admit when I was wrong. George Crile’s book is a novel-shaped thriller of non-fiction, and even talking into account the times the storytelling takes precedence over an unopinionated clarity of fact, it was deeply engaging and very, very funny at times.
I watched the film in conjunction with the book, and was surprised to find they did a reasonable adaptation of the events as they’re described in the book. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos was spot-on, and the strange relationship of these Americans to the mujahideen they are supplying is palpable (as is the vague understanding implicit in the film, and more explicit in the book, that some of the people provided with ordnance and arms will make the US an enemy in ten short years).
It’s a rollicking read, and better than any thriller I’ve read, to be sure. (Except perhaps for William Gibson, who has the distinction of dipping into hard sci-fi and cyberpunk with his thrillers.) But there’s one nagging question I have, having finished: what happened to the $5bn worth of arms and ammunition?
Crile describes the DShK, the Stinger, the Oerlikon, thousands and thousands of AK-47s, Spanish mortars, SA-7s, Blowpipes, even old .303 Enfields. (Not to mention whatever was abandoned by the Soviet Army when they finally retreated.) Now, for three years after the Afghan-Soviet war ended, the US and Soviets both were still supplying Afghans with weaponry, and while it seems safe to assume that a far portions of those weapons were utilized to the point of destruction during the subsequent civil war, I can’t help but wonder what was left when the US returned in 2001.
Is there an unclassified accounting or estimation of what armaments the Taliban held in 2001 prior to their ousting? I’d be very curious to know roughly how many of those were weapons purchased by the CIA. For that matter, is there an estimation of what the Taliban hold now? Inquiring minds, and all that.
I wholeheartedly agree with Tom Schaller over at FiveThirtyEight:
With all due respect to the late senator, I think it’s a bad idea to suddenly change the law, even if the motives are to honor a long-serving senator and also to ensure that the state is not underrepresented in the Senate. Given that the current–and in my opinion, stupid–procedure was enacted by state Democrats with partisan motives to thwart then-Gov. Mitt Romney were he to have the power to appoint a successor in 2004 to John Kerry had Kerry won the presidential election, the calls for altering it again so soon after it was changed (and again with at least a partially partisan intent) would set, or rather continue, a dangerous precedent.
I too mourn Teddy Kennedy’s death, and I have a strong wish for Congress to use the pretext of honouring Kennedy’s many years of service and passionate devotion to the cause of health care reform (and a federal insurance option) to push through a damn bill already, given that they have the votes. But this should not be an opportunity to establish a way to tip a vote in partisan favor. With respect to Senator Kennedy, leaving Massachusetts with no clear congressional leadership is not a strong enough reason to change the rules to keep partisan lines strong. The people of Massachusetts should vote for their electoral representative, as they did for Kennedy.