Trimming a bloated defense budget -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Nov 16, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column: Trimming a bloated defense budget in which Gene writes: "I come not to bury the manifesto issued last week by President Obama's debt-reduction commission, but to praise the most welcome of its ideas: Slash defense spending along with everything else."

Hi, everyone. Busy day, as usual. Mitch McConnell has found religion on earmarks; President Obama's in the same church; Prince William is getting married (sorry, but I was London bureau chief for two years -- can't shake the royals), Charlie Rangel was found to have broken House rules, GOP senators seem likely to block consideration of the START treaty in the lame-duck session... Today's column was about the most positive sign I saw in the president's debt commission report -- the principle that defense spending should be treated like any other discretionary spending. And in what should be today's best-read story, Reliable Source takes up the question that everyone in the Washington area was asking: Was it really possible for Leslie Johnson, arrested wife of really-arrested Prince George's County executive Jack Johnson, to stuff $79,600 in her bra?

First, congrats on a superb, fandamntastic book! I've given one away already and suggest it to every attentive ear. Democrats: How is it possible that legislation this WH wanted (healthcare, financial reform, Ledbetter, tax cuts, TARP etcl) turns into a case against Pelosi and that "liberal agenda." Maybe I'm confused about politics, but do House Speakers routinely buck their party leader's efforts? It seems to me that Pelosi is now taking flak for doing her job and doing it well while the dems (once again) lack the backbone G_d gave a jellyfish to defend her. BTW, despite what Lawrence O'Donnel claimed, if the speakers effectiveness should be judged by whether he/she maintains control of the house, wouldn't that mean we've had a history of ineffective speakers since all of them eventually lose? DId I mention how great the book is? dude, where is the DC book tour?

Thanks! And yes, the speaker did her job quite well. The president asked, and she delivered. As for D.C. book events, I'll be talking about "Disintegration" at Politics and Prose on Nov. 22.

Defense was not the only area that was suggested as an area to trim. According to "A taxpayer's Itemized Receipt" from the Third Way Organization the military operations in Iraq/Afghanistan are not even in the top five expenditures of the Government. The top five include many items that some people feel should not even be on the table when it comes to deficit reduction. The top five are: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Interest on the National Debt, and non Iraq/Afghanistan military operations. I believe that savings can be made in all areas and nothing should be off the table. while it would be very hard on a lot of people, all of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire at the end of this year if we are really serious about deficit reduction.

You make a good point that if the debt is really the big issue, then why not let all the tax cuts expire? That would cut the debt by something like $3.7 trillion over the next decade. Your top-five list is good, but somewhat misleading -- Social Security is huge if left unfixed, but it's easier to fix than Medicare or Medicaid. My point about defense is that it sucks up half of all our "discretionary" spending. This is the first time that our nation has gone to war -- to the tune of $170 billion dollars a year -- while cutting taxes, not raising them to pay for the war effort. What sense does that make?

I really see this as an opportunity for the President to call the bluff of the Republicans in Congress. "You wanna cut? Let's cut!" This could really play out well for him.

I agree that it's a political opportunity, if he plays it right. But there are some things that he and the Democrats would like to cut and some they wouldn't, so it seems to me that playing this right should involve getting out in front. Lead the discussion rather than react.

Mr. Robinson: You often take the progressive viewpoint on matters and I appreciate that very much. However, Obama and his advisors have been using the Democratic base and progressives in general for his own electoral gain without pursuing a true liberal agenda. What do you think has changed or will change in Obama's philosophical makeup that has apparently convinced you that he will make any deep cuts in defense spending?

Who said I was convinced of that? I keep waiting for Congress to pass a law mandating that presidents follow my advice, but it seems to be bottled up in committee.

Hi Mr. Robinson, Farm subsidies - totaling billions of dollars a year - go to farmers and ranchers who as a group vote republican and many are Tea Party supporters. The argument they make in favor of the "welfare" is that national security is at stake. Seems hypocritical to me to rail against government programs and then take this money. What do you make of this "national security" argument and do you think the new GOP/Tea P house will cut them? Thank you.

I think these are welfare payments from the government, and no, I don't think the GOP will really go after farm subsidies. I think the preening deficit hawks should have to vote on all these "good" welfare payments -- and explain what's the difference between good welfare and bad.

With Prince William making it official today that he will getting marrying, we'll get the typical "We don't have monarchies" in USA. But considering we just had a President who was the son of a previous President plus the recent wall-to-wall coverage of Chelsea Clinton's wedding, you have to wonder how anti-monarchy Americans really are? That said, if the House of Windsor can't get the British or Commonwealth folks interested in a royal wedding, there is concern for its survival since royal weddings is pretty much their "thing."

Americans love gawking at the whole royals thing from afar -- and after Diana's death, the only member of the family who has that whole fairy-tale thing going is William. So people here, and around the world, will pay attention. The rest of the royals are a pretty dour lot. As for the Chelsea Clinton wedding, here at home we worship celebrity, not nobility. 

Eugene, Your column I think misses some key points. Of course the ratio of US defense to world defense spending is abnormally large when you consider we're the lone superpower remaining after half a century of East-West arms buildups. But if you look at US defense spending as a % of either our GDP or our overall budget, there's a different story to be told. Currently defense spending is roughly 5% of our GDP (historically pretty low, especially when defesne spending in the 1980's reached 20% (20%!) of GDP). And when you look at the overall budget year after year for the US, the breakdown is roughly 60% entitlements, 20% defense, and 20% discretionary spending. If we're really to make a dent in our deficit, shouldn't entitlement reform come above all else?

Of course, but the biggest chunk of spending that we have a choice about is the defense budget. As for entitlements, Social Security will get fixed. The real budget-buster is health care costs. It took a year of agony for President Obama to pass a reform bill that "bends the curve" of health care costs, but that curve is still trending upward. The debt commission report notes in passing that at some point we may have to look at measures such as a "robust" public health insurance option or a so-called "all-payer" system.

You got that right. Why are so many lying to us about Social Security. They say we have got to close it down becaue it is too expensive. How much of the budget goes to it right now? Zero?

Since its inception, Social Security has taken in $2.5 trillion more than it has paid out. Given the looming Boomer retirements, if nothing about the program is changed, in 2037 benefits would have to be cut by 25 percent -- not eliminated, just reduced. That would be unacceptable, of course. But there's plenty of time and plenty of leeway to fix Social Security. It's a problem, but by no means a crisis.

Any opinion on Charlie Rangle's hearing yesterday? I found it a bit insulting and abusrd that he was trying to use the "I didn't have time or money to hire a lawyer excuse". For those who are prosecuted under the tax laws that he and his committee write, that excuse wouldn't go very far.

No, it wouldn't. On Twitter (I'm @Eugene_Robinson), I commented that at this point Rangel needs protection from himself. It emerged at yesterday's hearing that staff has concluded that while Rangel clearly violated House rules, there was no "corruption" involved -- no personal gain. That could have been the headline. Instead, it was all about Rangel's walkout and his lame-sounding excuse.

Do you really think Mr. Obama can turn his presidency around? I don't mean running his administration in a more politically astute way. I mean, does he really have the chops, backbone or whatever to be successful in this job? I voted for the man twice, and don't get me wrong -- we're so much better off with him than with McCain/Palin. But I have come around to believing that the President is not the leader we need to turn the present situation around, and if anyone could do it, I don't think it's him.

I don't know how you're defining successful. Obama got most of his legislative program through Congress, including his top priority, a health care bill. Do you mean a charismatic leader who can unite a divided nation and make everybody sing Kumbaya? That was Obama, circa January 2009. The country has some deep divisions and deep-seated problems, and I don't think there's any one person who can permanently erase all that by dint of charisma or management technique.

The philosophy that long obtained among political thinkers, and that informed the Founders, was that defense was a raison d'etre for people to come together to form governments. Much of what the modern state that we now call the U.S. does is simply not a central function for which a central government is formed (Amtrak is but one example, food subsidies another, and so on). Yes, defense spending should be flyspecked to cut out programs that are not needed, but entire other sacred cows should simply be eliminated as outside the proper functions of our government as established. We have seen what being all things to all people has gotten us.

That's all well and good, in theory. In practice, this is a very big, very complicated country and it simply could not function without a big, complicated government. It just couldn't.

Did you see the Lisa Murkowski interview with Katie Couric? I am not surprised since there is no love lost between the Murkowskis and Sarah Palin. Does Joe Miller going down in Alaska actually hurt Sarah Palin in the long run?

From the beginning, I thought the Murkowski-Miller race was really a proxy for Murkowski-Palin. No love lost? That's an understatement. I remember running into Murkowski at the GOP convention the day after Palin's speech, and how hard it was for her to utter the requisite words of praise through clenched teeth.

What really strikes me about corruption in public officials is how bizarre it gets. Between the prostitution hijinks, the odd places to hide money, etc., etc. It seems like politicians who have served a long time develop such a sense of entitlement that they become disconnected from reality. And it's that sense of entitlement that seems to be bothering so many of us regular folks lately. When the economy was galloping, and the country was undisputedly #1, maybe we had the bandwidth to absorb that kind of thing. But now we don't. Your thoughts?

If the allegations against Jack Johnson are true, we're just talking about old-fashioned graft. This kind of entitlement goes back many thousands of years, I'm afraid. It's just that every once in a while, there's a detail so vivid that it really brings it all home. This time, it's the bra.


And speaking of bringing it all home, folks, my time is up for today. See you again next time!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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