Labyrinthine, Indestructable Economic Force: Eyeing Our Military Budget-Surpassing the Rest of World's Combined

Article excerpt

The United States spends more money on its military than the rest of the earth's other 192 nations combined.

In the United States, neither the largest, nor the most endangered, nor the most populated of the earth's nations, American taxpayers send nearly half of their federal tax dollars into the government's vast defense budget each year.

The nation's defense industry is a mighty and virtually indestructible economic force that employs hundreds of thousands and holds sway in the halls of Congress.

Defense spending assessments can take on many forms: number crunching, political sniping, ethical wrangling, or some combination of the three. The assessment published here is something like a scrapbook--an attempt to understand U.S. defense spending and its implications through a collection of clippings culled from legislation, graphs, reports, government Web sites, letters from snipers, and the editorial pages of major newspapers.

Complex-ified and stuffed

Each year, the defense budget is packaged in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act. The process that culminates in the act each year, not surprisingly, is complicated.

Veteran defense analyst Winslow T. Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information watches that monthslong process with a hawk's eye--it's his job--and he has an intimate analyst's relationship with it. This time around, Wheeler is flustered.

Reporting on the Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2007, which was made law Oct. 1, 2006, and which assigned hundreds of billions of dollars to a seemingly infinite list of projects, programs and emergencies, Wheeler writes: "Congress has so complex-ified the defense budget and stuffed it with spending gimmicks, it is difficult to understand just how much is being spent."

Difficult indeed. And understanding how much is being spent seems more complicated the more closely one follows the process.

The process goes something like this: The president makes a comprehensive budget request, which includes defense spending. The defense portion of the budget request then makes its way to the House Armed Services Committee, where programs and projects and monies (and the occasional wholly unrelated amendment) are added or subtracted.

From there it's off to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where again there are additions and subtractions.

At this stage it's a bill and it returns to the House for a vote, then back to the Senate for a vote, and finally, if it passes both houses, to the president's desk for a signature or veto.

In February 2006, after conferring with Pentagon leadership, the president made a request: $439.6 billion in "new appropriations" for the Department of Defense and $1.9 billion in defense "entitlement programs" (which are exactly what the term entitlement suggests--a veteran's entitlement to health care or retirement funds, for example).

Then there was a request for $50 billion to cover the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's an initial request of just over $491 billion.

Christopher Hellman, a military budget analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, in his own 2007 budget analysis, notes that even this early number was "a sum that [exceeded] the average amount spent by the Pentagon during the Cold War for a military that is one-third smaller than it was just over a decade ago."

Wheeler, in his analysis, points out a common error in defense spending tallies: omitting defense-related spending scattered throughout other departments.

Also included in that initial tally and in all final tallies, he argues, should be funding requests for the nuclear weapons activities of the Department of Energy--the president requested $17 billion. There is the money requested for "Other Defense-Related Activities" which includes funding for the FBI, the Selective Service, seeing to the National Defense Stockpile and more--the president requested $4. …