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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley April 13, 2009

Olbermann is right about base defense spending increase

In response to Republican complaints that the Obama administration is gutting the military, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann fired back, saying that Obama is actually increasing defense spending.

"GOP lawmakers (are) falsely accusing the president of gutting the Pentagon’s budget, when in fact President Obama is actually increasing Bush-era defense spending by $21 billion in the new fiscal year," Olbermann said on his Countdown program on MSNBC.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced April 6, 2009, that he planned an overhaul of military spending, reducing the amount on big-ticket items such as the F-22 fighter plane and shifting more money toward new technology and troops. That led to Republican complaints that Gates was gutting defense, which in turn led to Olbermann's comments.

"Representatives in Congress  (are) wildly and falsely mischaracterizing that as making cuts to the military's budget," Olbermann said. "A) Afghanistan and Iraq spending, that is all in a separate budget . You could look that up. B) In the final year of the Bush administration, the defense budget was $513 billion. In fiscal year 2010 it will be $534 billion. That would be more. In fact, it's an increase of $21 billion, not a cut. As they say, do the math."

Olbermann grabs his figures straight from the Obama administration's proposed 2010 budget , which calls for a 4 percent increase in base funding for defense. That would, in fact, increase the base defense budget from the 2009 enacted level of $513.3 billion to $533.7 billion.

There are a couple caveats here.

Base defense spending does not include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Olbermann noted. Spending for the wars comes through supplemental budgets.

To calculate the cost of defense including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan requires a little math.

During the first half of this fiscal year, President Bush secured $66 billion in supplemental funding for the wars, fully aware that a second supplement would be needed from the new president. Obama has requested an additional $83 billion supplement (although $7 billion of that is for foreign aid). So $142 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009. Together with base defense spending of $513 billion, it comes to total 2009 military spending of $655 billion.

Obama's proposed budget calls for $534 billion in base defense spending and estimates a "placeholder" amount of $130 billion to fund the wars overseas. Total estimated military spending for 2010: $664 billion.

That's a long way of explaining that if you include the costs of the wars, there's an overall $9 billion increase in defense spending under the Obama budget.

There's another caveat, said Todd Harrison, fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Obama's base defense budget appears to include some things that in the past were included in supplemental war funding.

For example, Gates said $2 billion in his proposed budget to increase intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for the war — including 50 Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles — would be permanently funded in the base budget.

As well it probably should, Harrison said. But for comparison purposes, it inflates the base military spending next year. Details of the defense budget have not yet been released, Harrison said, but he suspects there may be lots of other spending like that which would skew defense spending comparisons.

Brian Riedl, a research fellow in federal budget policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while Obama's defense budget may go up a little, some parts of defense spending will go up while other parts go down. And, he said, Republican opponents may be right that procurement spending will go down even as the net defense budget goes up.

"The short answer is that they both may be right," Riedl said.

Marc Goldwein, policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, added that looking at next year's budget isn't the only test of whether the defense will be "gutted" as some have claimed. Many of the procurement changes proposed by Gates won't be felt for years, he said.

"It's hard to cut spending really quickly," Goldwein said. "It would have very little effect in 2010. But it could have an effect going forward."

There are lots of ways to calculate how much the nation spends on defense, and some methods can be skewed if you include the cost for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we think Olbermann was on pretty solid footing when he cited the budget numbers for base defense spending.

But there's an important caveat because the 2010 cost may include things that weren't part of the 2009 number. We can't know exactly how much of that has happened because the administration has not released a detailed budget yet. So for now, we rule Olbermann's comment Mostly True.

Our Sources

Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Video: interview with Nancy Pelosi on the president's agenda , April 8, 2009

Office of Budget and Management, Budget Documents for Fiscal Year 2010 , Feb. 26, 2009

U.S. Defense Department, News briefing with Secretary Gates , April 6, 2009

Washington Post, Gates seeks sharp turn in spending , April 7, 2009

Interview with Todd Harrison, fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, April 10, 2009

Interview with Brian Riedl, a research fellow in federal budget policy at the Heritage Foundation, April 10, 2009

Interview with Marc Goldwein, policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, April 10, 2009

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Olbermann is right about base defense spending increase

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