The Defense Budget and the Deficit

Based on my experience at the Senate Budget Committee, I learned that reading different deficit reduction plans can be tricky. Some use CBO or other “baselines” as a basis for comparison, but those baselines can be a mystery to some and differ – sometimes by huge amounts – from more readily understood future budget proposals for departments, such as the Pentagon’s. Other sources of confusion can be whether the plan applies just to the Pentagon or the larger National Defense Budget Function, uses outlays rather than budget authority, and does or does not include funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes the dollars used are “constant;” sometimes they are “current.”

Sometimes the press and others simply misunderstand elements of an overall plan, such as by reporting a plan’s savings for one “illustrative” year as the entirety of the plan’s savings. Sometimes uncovering what a plan really means requires close reading of the text and footnotes; in still other cases, it requires prolonged discussion with the authors.

The attached information paper attempts to remove the various impediments to an apples-to-apples comparison of the major plans to reduce defense spending that have been publically proposed to the Obama Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. It compares all the plans to the Obama/Gates Plan for National Defense Spending for the years 2011 to 2020; it addresses only “base” budgets (which exclude spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere), and it applies to budget authority in “current” dollars.

After the table showing the “apples to apples” dollar comparison, each plan is addressed briefly, pointing out its major characteristics. I have attempted to do so objectively, with as little editorial comment as possible.

Links to each plan are provided.

Budget Authority Savings
Relative to the Obama/Gates “Base” National Defense Budget 2010-2020
Billions of Dollars, All Dollars Are “Current” Dollars


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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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