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Byron York: How defense spending will grow under sequester cuts

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The major objection most Republicans have to the coming sequestration budget cuts is that the cuts will fall disproportionately on the Department of Defense.  That’s true; defense spending is about one-fifth of the federal budget but will take about half of the sequester cuts.

But even for the Pentagon, the cuts are only to the rate of growth for the defense budget in coming years.  They are not actual cuts that make spending decline.  In a February publication, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 to 2023,” the Congressional Budget Office (summary here, full report here) outlines the increases in defense spending that will happen even with the various spending caps and sequestration cuts that are currently law.  Table 1-5 (Outlays) on page 30 outlines projected defense spending in the coming decade.  For 2014, the figure is $593 billion.  For 2015, it is $597 billion.  For 2016, $611 billion.  For 2017, $619 billion.  For 2018, $628 billion.  For 2019, $648 billion.  For 2020, $663 billion.  For 2021, $679 billion.  For 2022, $702 billion.  And for 2023, $714 billion.

In other words, defense spending will increase in every year, even with sequestration cuts.

Readers may notice that the figures cited above include “war-related spending” of between $75 billion and $103 billion for the entire decade to come.  Because the war in Afghanistan is going on now, and there is no law to stop spending on the war at some point in the future, the CBO is bound to assume that the spending will continue.  “The rules the CBO has to follow are that any spending on the books (‘current law’) is assumed to grow at the rate of inflation,” says former CBO chief Douglas Holtz-Eakin.  “That means that it overstates spending when you plan to cut back in the future but have not yet passed a law (future appropriation) that reflects it.”

But assume that U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan does end in the next year or so, and that war spending goes down or even disappears altogether.  Even in that scenario, defense spending is scheduled to increase in every year except one, even with sequestration cuts.  The CBO’s numbers, minus war spending, begin with $518 billion in 2014.  For 2015, the number is $510 billion.  For 2016, $520 billion.  For 2017, $525 billion.  For 2018, $532 billion.  For 2019, $549 billion.  For 2020, $563 billion.  And for 2021, $576 billion.  (The CBO chart does not have relevant numbers for 2022 and 2023.)

So under a scenario of continued war in Afghanistan and under a scenario of no war in Afghanistan, and everything in between, defense spending is scheduled to rise steadily in the next decade, even with sequestration cuts.

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