How Much Would A Clinton Administration Spend On The Pentagon?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to and meets Pennsylvania voters at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Monday September 19, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Yesterday I wrote a piece that analyzed the potential cost of Donald Trump's Pentagon spending blueprint. The costs of Hillary Clinton's approach are less clear, but under her current proposals, Pentagon spending would definitely increase.

As with my discussion of the Trump plan, it must be noted that the United States is already spending more than is needed to provide a robust defense of the United States and its allies. As my colleague Stephen Miles of Win Without War and I have noted in a piece written in advance of the "Commander-in-Chief "forum earlier this month, the Obama administration has spent more on defense than was spent during the George W. Bush years, and current levels exceed the peak level reached during the Reagan buildup.

If the U.S. government can't defend the country on a budget of roughly $600 billion for the Pentagon and related agencies, something is seriously wrong. As the presidential race moves into its final phase, candidates should be asked why they think this massive figure is not sufficient, and pressed for details of how they could eliminate waste, fraud and abuse while crafting a realistic set of missions for the U.S. military. In fact, a recent analysis by Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute suggests that the Pentagon could scale back spending substantially if the United States were to pursue a more restrained defense strategy that focuses on core security interests.

As for Hillary Clinton, her web site calls for "ending the sequester for defense and non-defense spending in a balanced way." This mirrors President Obama's position, as well as that of many Congressional Democrats. It should be noted that the sequester mechanism - the imposition of across-the-board cuts triggered by a failure to meet specific deficit reduction targets - has not been the real issue. What Clinton is probably referring to is a desire to eliminate the caps on Pentagon spending that were imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The budget caps have not been as onerous as their critics suggest. Congress has upped the caps twice, and the Pentagon and Congress have routinely used the war budget -- officially known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account -- as a slush fund to pay for tens of billions in expenditures that have nothing to do with fighting wars. But even with these loopholes, the caps have played a useful role, eliminating several hundred billion in excess spending that the Pentagon had hoped for over the next decade.

An indication of how much a President Clinton might spend on the Pentagon may be determined in part by looking at how she decides to fill key cabinet positions. Michele Flournoy, the co-founder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an oft-mentioned candidate for Secretary of Defense in a Clinton administration, has staked out the most hawkish position, calling for increases that "at a minimum" track the levels set out in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates FY 2012 Pentagon budget. Fluornoy's position is based on the work of the National Defense Panel, a bipartisan body on which she served. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has noted, going down this path could cost an additional $800 to $900 billion over the next decade. Doing so would seriously undermine any effort to impose budget discipline at the Pentagon, or to craft realistic missions for our military forces. Hopefully Hillary Clinton will not adopt this approach if elected president.

There are a few signs of hope that Clinton might not go full speed ahead on a massive and unnecessary military spending surge. At the Commander-in-Chief forum earlier this month, she stated in no uncertain terms that U.S. allies in Iraq should not expect the U.S. to send ground troops there "ever again." She also stated that "we're not putting ground troops in Syria." The U.S. already has 4,000 troops in Iraq, so presumably what Clinton meant is that she would not sent large numbers of ground troops akin to the 160,000 that were there at the height of the Bush administration's intervention. If she holds to this promise, it could obviate the need for major defense increases and open the door to ending the use of the war budget as a slush fund. The Stimson Center has done an analysis of how the war fund could be phased out; candidate Clinton would be well-advised to take a close look at that proposal.

Another big cost driver at the Pentagon is the ill-advised plan to spend $1 trillion on a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles. Asked about these expenditures in advance of the Iowa caucuses, Clinton said "I'm going to look into that. It doesn't make sense to me." If elected, she should take that pledge seriously and look for ways to scale back the trillion dollar nuclear buildup.

The bottom line is that absent public pressure, a Clinton administration could raise Pentagon spending substantially. But there are elements of her plans that, if implemented, could eliminate the need for those proposed increases and begin to put the Pentagon on a real budget. In short, the level of Pentagon spending under a Clinton presidency could be up for grabs, with early decisions on personnel and the level of her first budget setting the trajectory for what might follow.