The best news about Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, released earlier this week, is that it has virtually no chance of being passed into law. Its mix of Pentagon spending increases and steep cuts in domestic investments would cause unneeded suffering, stifle economic growth, and undermine our long-term security.
The Ryan blueprint is a political document designed as fodder for the 2014 mid-term elections, and perhaps for a 2016 Ryan presidential run as well. Like all budget proposals, it is a moral document, signaling what its authors value most and what they consider unworthy of government support. It cares more about cutting corporate taxes than it does about helping poor and middle class families make ends meet. It would end Medicare as we know it by allowing the people to opt out of the program. And over the next decade, it would slash spending on education, public works, job training, medical research, housing and nutrition while boosting the Pentagon by nearly half a trillion dollars over the caps set out in current law.
The Ryan plan is not a conservative budget in the true sense of the term. If it were it would cut government spending across the board, not give a free ride to wasteful Pentagon spending while letting other programs bear the full burden of spending reductions. Ryan is soft on the Pentagon and hard on everyone else. Ryan's approach has already drawn fire in Tea Party and libertarian circles, where cutting Pentagon spending is considered fair game in any effort to reduce the size of government.
There is one redeeming feature of the Ryan proposal. Its number for Pentagon spending in Fiscal Year 2015 would stick to the caps established in December's House/Senate budget proposal. Given that he helped author that plan, it would have been hypocritical to turn around and denounce it just a few months after it was signed. But in today's political environment, keeping your promise for three months can be considered an accomplishment of sorts.
It is in the later years of his plan that Ryan's Pentagon spending projections go off the rails. It's important to remember that the current budget caps would keep Pentagon at an inflation-adjusted figure of over $500 billion per year for the rest of this decade, well above the Cold War average and more than enough to provide an effective defense of the United States. But just as President Obama's proposal argues for lifting these caps after FY 2015, so do Ryan and his colleagues. Ryan proposes doing so with considerably more gusto, aiming to add $319 billion through 2021 to limit troop reductions, finance more F-35 combat aircraft, sustain 11 aircraft carrier task forces, and provide ample funds for new Navy surface ships, a new ballistic missile submarine, and a new long-range bomber.
None of these expenditures will help deal with the most urgent threats we face, from mass casualty terrorism to climate change to the spread of nuclear weapons. But they will be great news for companies like Lockheed Martin, which saw its Pentagon contracts jump by $7 billion last year even as it was falsely claiming that automatic budget cuts were going to force it to send layoff warnings to the majority of its employees.
There is another way forward, one that has received far too little attention in discussions of budgetary options. Last month the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) released its "Better Off Budget," a sort of mirror image of the Ryan plan that invests in new infrastructure, protects the social safety net, closes corporate tax loopholes, and reduces Pentagon spending by $255 billion over the next decade. Most importantly, it would end war funding -- known in Washington-ese as spending for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) -- in the FY 2015 budget, providing enough money to wind down the Afghan war, but no more. It would not allow OCO funding to serve as an ongoing slush fund for the Pentagon.
Skeptics will argue that the CPC plan ignores current political realities, most notably the inability to overcome resistance by Republicans in Congress to raising taxes on any institution or individual, no matter how well off they may be. But this proposition has not been put to the test in the context of a comprehensive plan that provides concrete benefits in the areas of job creation and support for basic human needs.
The December 2013 budget deal is likely to hold for the FY2015 budget currently under discussion, but if we want to see a different option beyond that the discussion needs to start now. The budgetary debates in the run up to the 2014 and 2016 elections shouldn't be limited to comparisons of the Ryan and Obama plans -- the CPC budget proposal should be thoroughly discussed and debated alongside the other two as another way forward. That's what democracy is supposed to be about.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books).