It's time to add an asterisk to the Republican tenet that excessive government spending and debt are bad for growth and jobs. Unless it's government money for the military, the asterisk would say.
In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have intensified their criticism of potential cuts to defense spending, departing from their budget-slashing script. In some cases, they have defended military spending as critical to the economic recovery.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Huffington Post he believes military spending cuts would be bad for jobs. "There is abundant information that [there will be] layoffs of thousands … because we will have to cut weapons systems," he said.
"I think it would be devastating to the military-industrial complex," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "You'd lose thousands of high-skilled jobs and undermine our national security."
After a recent Congressional Budget Office report said the automatic cuts to defense spending set to begin in January would be bad for the economy, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told Politico last week that he viewed military spending cuts as the wrong prescription for the economy.
"The whole point here is to try to get some economic growth, job creation, to get out of this recession,” Kyl said. “Why would we risk going backward with policy that even CBO says would be the wrong prescription right now?”
Military spending is big business for an extensive web of industries and contractors that depend on the government to meet their bottom lines and keep thousands employed. The failure of the congressional super committee to reach a deal on deficit reduction means that $500 billion in defense cuts are set to kick in next year, under a process known as sequestration. Military contractors are reportedly growing restive over the potential contraction of the Pentagon budget.
House Armed Services Chairman Howard McKeon recently called the looming military spending cuts a "national disgrace" when he accepted an award from a defense industry lobbying group.
Until now, Republicans had focused primarily on the strategic impacts of the cuts. But the idea that military spending is an important engine for economic growth raises a question: Why isn't spending on other domestic priorities, including health care or education, also good for jobs and the economy?
"Well look, the impact on jobs is only one component," McCain said. "The major component is, what the secretary of defense says that it will have a 'devastating' impact on our national security. That's the primary reason."
Graham said cuts to social programs and education would be "devastating" as well. He cited the National Cancer Institute, which will see its budget slashed if the cuts are not averted. And he said he supports cutting the defense budget somewhat and dealing with contractor abuse. It's "not that the … military-industrial complex can't be reformed," Graham said. "It just can't be gutted."
Graham rejected the broader Keynesian economic argument that government spending is good for job growth. "No," Graham said. "I'm just saying why would you destroy the defense-industrial base?"
"I would like to address some of the recent press chatter that attempts to paint Republicans as closet Keynesians because we oppose the massive defense cuts that are contained in the Budget Control Act," Kyl said. "Eliminating more than 1 million defense-related jobs, which is what will happen if the automatic sequestration occurs, will obviously hurt the economy. I support spending for national security because it is necessary for the nation, not because it also happens to provide jobs."
Graham took it a step further, verging on contradicting the GOP's jobs message. "Defense policy has an economic component, but my drive is not to save jobs," he said.