Military budget

How to raise the debt ceiling? Cut military spending

July 15, 2011: 11:38 AM ET

Defense spending helped create today's fiscal problems. So why isn't it being considered seriously as a way to help fix them?

The Pentagon, looking northeast with the Potom...

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FORTUNE -- Throughout the drama that's stalled Washington lawmakers in raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit, there's been little talk of slicing military spending as Republicans call for big budget cuts. Reductions to Medicare, Medicaid and possibly Social Securityhave been the bigger focus.

The talks have reached a frenzy on Capitol Hill. Earlier this week, White House negotiations ended on tense notes as the clock ticked toward an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the legal limit on federal borrowing. All the while, Moody's has warned the stalemate could jeopardize the U.S.'s credit rating and Standard & Poors has made similar statements.

Admittedly, getting an agreement on cuts to defense will not be easy. It will certainly incite more drama as many Republicans and even some Democrats remain hawkish -- being perceived as unsupportive of U.S. troops abroad right now is a political risk.

But then again, as policy researchers at a Washington, DC-based think tank suggest, defense spending helped create today's fiscal problems. Today we spend about $250 billion more per year in inflation-adjusted dollars (counting war spending that includes funds for Iraq and Afghanistan) than during the Cold War, according to the Center for American Progress.

"This ballooning defense budget played a significant role in turning the budget surplus projected a decade ago into a massive deficit," according to a report released by the center on Thursday.

Researchers estimate that the U.S. could cut $100 billion in defense spending annually and still keep the military budget at the Reagan administration's peak Cold War levels of approximately $580 billion. They believe reducing the defense budget by $250 billion to $300 billion annually would still bring spending down to levels seen under presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.

Of course, not all lawmakers, or even all Republicans, are against cutting military spending. As Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told Fortune in March: "One of the things I've been working on for the last two years is to put financial controls in the Defense Department. They're highly effective at what they do but they're highly inefficient. There's a lot of money in that $600 billion budget that we could save just through good management practices."

Needless to say, the country's budget woes can't be solved by cutting defense spending alone. The question is can Americans -- already faced with possible cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- live with less military spending?

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