Even with combat in Iraq and Afghanistan officially over, potential presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for a reversal of a shrinking defense budget.
On March 24, 2015, Rubio and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a budget amendment that would raise the Pentagon’s budget despite legislative limitations and an end to two wars. The defense budget already has gone down too much, Rubio said in a speech on the Senate floor.
"Inflation-adjusted defense spending has declined 21 percent since 2010, and even if we discount the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has still declined by a dangerous 12 percent," Rubio said.
Those are big numbers in a military budget that is more than $500 billion. We wanted to check his accounting and see what the numbers told us.
Rubio’s amendment deals largely with the effects of the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed on Aug. 2, 2011, to end a standoff on the nation’s debt ceiling. That was when Republicans and some Democrats said the White House needed to reduce the nation’s debt in exchange for raising the amount the treasury can borrow, which Congress was required to approve.
Had the debt ceiling not been raised, the United States could have defaulted on payments for the first time in history. In response to the showdown, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit rating anyway.
Part of the Budget Control Act’s terms was $1.2 trillion in cuts, with a joint House and Senate super-committee responsible to find another $1.2 trillion in cuts by Nov. 23. If they didn’t agree on what to whittle away, across-the-board sequestration cuts would go into effect.
Sequestration was essentially a dare that was supposed to threaten Congress into working together to find things to cut. But the super-committee couldn’t agree, and the sequestration began to impose $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years -- including $487 billion from defense. Neither the White House nor Congressional Democrats or Republicans like the practice, which (among other things) imposes spending caps on the defense budget. These caps increase a set amount each year, but generally not enough to keep up with inflation.
That’s where we get to Rubio’s amendment, which aims to raise the defense budget back to 2012 spending projections without having to comply with the Budget Control Act caps.
Drawing down the budget
Rubio’s office did not confirm the source of his statistic, but it almost certainly came from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Analysis of the Fiscal Year 2015 Defense Budget, which was released in September 2014.
The 2015 defense budget has three main parts: $495.6 billion in base discretionary funding, which is subject to the sequestration cap, and $58.6 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, which is not capped.
The contingency funding started with the name Global War on Terror under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama changed the name to Overseas Contingency Operations but still used the fund to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq war officially ended in December 2010, so Afghanistan gets most of the contingency funding now.
Also not subject to the cap is the third portion, $6.2 billion in mandatory funding, which includes retirement and pension payments. There are various other appropriations in the defense budget, such as Haiti earthquake relief in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy assistance in 2013.
By comparison, fiscal year 2010 had a $527.9 billion base budget and $162.4 billion contingency budget. (The numbers we’re sharing now won’t add up to the exact same percentages as Rubio had them because of inflation adjustments and the range of appropriations included in the report.)
Todd Harrison, senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the report's author, said Rubio correctly used his analysis as adjusted for inflation. But while it’s a matter of interpretation whether defense spending should go up, Rubio is lacking context, Harrison said. Today’s military has a little more than half the troops it had in Korea or Vietnam, and it’s relatively normal for spending to decrease this way as wars end.
"If you go back historically, and not even that far, levels now are comparable to 2007," Harrison said. "It’s still above the level of spending during the majority of the Bush years."
Other economic and defense policy experts agreed with Harrison’s data-driven conclusions, but were somewhat split on Rubio’s stance. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said even sequestration cuts weren’t making much of a dent in the highest relative defense spending since World War II.
"Cherry-picking a historic high to make your point about the level of cuts misrepresents the data, plain and simple," Ellis said.
Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that even with the end of two wars, the Defense Department still needs to maintain some level of funding that would allow it to retain its status as a global military leader.
Equipment needs to be upgraded or replaced, munitions must be restocked and increasingly expensive weapons systems must be replaced, she said. While the number of actual personnel is decreasing, costs are going up and a military presence is required in more and more places, such as backing allies and fighting extremists.
"It’s not just about spending more, it is about spending it wisely," she said.
Rubio said, "Inflation-adjusted defense spending has declined 21 percent since 2010 and even if we discount the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan it has still declined by a dangerous 12 percent."
While Rubio’s office didn’t get back to us, a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments economist confirmed it was taken from an analysis he wrote about the fiscal year 2015 defense budget. Experts we talked to said while the conclusion is correct, Rubio doesn’t put the decrease in context of the historic high funding from 2010.
We rate the statement Mostly True.