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How to Freeze the Pentagon

Freshman congressman Mick Mulvaney puts military pork on the chopping block
Pentagon Cuts

In July, freshman congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), along with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), introduced an amendment to the House’s 2013 defense appropriations bill freezing defense spending at 2012 levels. Though it merely eliminates a proposed $1.1 billion increase in defense spending, the Mulvaney-Frank amendment was an acknowledgment that the endless military-spending hikes since 9/11 cannot continue. The legislation passed the House 247-167, with 88 Republicans in support, and the Senate will take up the bill this September.

American Conservative contributor Michael Ostrolenk, co-founder and national director of the Liberty Coalition, caught up with Congressman Mulvaney before the August recess to discuss conservative support for a more fiscally sound national defense.

TAC: Why is this an important issue for you?

Mick Mulvaney: I think it is important that conservatives show a willingness to look at all spending with the same level of critical analysis. To think that the Defense Department is somehow immune from the same tendencies toward inefficiency and waste as we know all other areas of government to possess, is just absurd. More importantly, perhaps, showing that willingness builds our credibility when it comes to reducing spending elsewhere. Put another way: if we show a willingness to at the very least freeze defense spending, it may well send the message that we are deadly serious about our spending problems, and not just using the deficit as a convenient excuse to cut spending on programs that we generally just don’t like.

TAC: What pushback did you receive and how will you overcome it in the future?

MM: The conversations with my colleagues were fairly simple and focused mostly on educating folks on what the amendment was, and was not. For example, many initially thought that this was somehow related to the sequester; it wasn’t. And others thought it represented a cut; it was actually just a freeze. Once we were able to get down to the facts of the matter, the amendment was an easy sell to many conservatives. The push back was mostly from the appropriators, who believed that the bill was fine as it was. They also attempted, for a short time at least, to argue that we had “already cut defense substantially” or that we were somehow “gutting” the defense budget. Again, the best tools here working in our favor were the facts: the cuts mentioned were to the War Budget and not the base budget; the “gutting” was only 0.17 percent of the total defense budget; etc. It is somewhat encouraging that, at the end of the day, the facts won out.

TAC: With military operations finished in Iraq, the conventional war in Afghanistan winding down and the fact that the U.S. is $16 trillion dollars in debt, is it a good time to not only freeze Pentagon budgets but to look at seriously cutting pork programs at DOD?

MM: Clearly. But to do so will take a much larger commitment from Republicans in general and conservatives in particular. Too many Members of Congress are still afraid to cut even a penny from the defense budget out of fear of looking “weak on defense.” We need to change the culture that exists now that equates dollars spent with commitment to national defense. Certainly, there is a link between the two at some point, but wanting to be smart with taxpayer dollars and defending the nation are far from mutually exclusive.

TAC: Many Republicans are warning that possible future cuts to the Pentagon will lead to job loss and economic impacts. That sounds a lot like military Keynesianism. How do you respond to such warnings?

MM: Republicans are just as guilty of flawed Keynesian thinking when it comes to defense spending as Democrats are on social spending. Indeed, that flaw weakens our correct argument we make against social spending, as it allows the opposition to easily—and accurately—cast us as hypocrites. Government spending is government spending, and it does not magically have different impacts on aggregate demand just because it is spent on guns instead of delivering the mail. We have to be courageous in our convictions that government spending does not create net new jobs. Period. We need to divorce the jobs discussion from the military spending/national security discussion.



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