Obama: “saving $400 billion” “again”?

Editor’s Commentary

13 April 2011 (revised and updated 16 April 2011)

In President Obama’s April 13th “deficit speech” he says:

Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense. Over the last two years, Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again.

What might “do that again” mean?

Actually contribute $400 billion from projected Pentagon budgets to deficit reduction?

That would require the Pentagon to take in and spend $400 billion less. But it is very difficult to identify much actual contribution to deficit reduction in the first $400 billion in Pentagon savings President Obama refers to and believes can be repeated.

Let’s take a quick look at the components of that first $400 billion working backward through time.

This past January Secretary Gates announced $78 billion in cuts over five years. In February when the President’s FY12 budget appeared all but $70 billion of this as regards deficit reduction evaporated. $68 billion was consumed by the special Overseas Contingency Operations (war) budgeting as the FY11 projected placeholder of $50 billion was replaced by the FY12 real OCO budget of $118 billion. Another $2 billion in the savings appears to have simply vanished in the five year budget projections, perhaps due to those pesky “rounding errors” that plague Pentagon budgets.

In 2010 Secretary Gates announced $100 billion in “efficiency” savings. He was quite forthright at the time, saying that he was keeping all the savings within the Pentagon to pay for other requirements. So we can’t legitimately count those toward deficit reduction, and presumably the President did not count those toward the $400 billion that has been saved.

So that leaves about $322 billion in Pentagon savings the White House needs to account for.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 17 February 2011 Secretary Gates said:

…over the last two defense budgets submitted by President Obama, we have curtailed or canceled troubled or excess programs that would have cost more than $330 billion if seen through to completion.

Connecting this to President Obama’s speech Defense News reports (13 April 2011) that:

Of the $400 billion already saved, $330 billion is supposed to come from Gates’ cuts to weapons programs – for example the cancellation of the Army’s Future Combat Systems program and the Air Force’s Next-Generation Bomber, both of which Gates terminated in the 2010 budget. However, those two programs have been replaced: The Army is developing the Ground Combat Vehicle, and the Air Force has launched a scaled-back bomber program.

“Supposed” and “However” are the key words in the preceding paragraph. To be real savings that contribute in any meaningful way to deficit reduction the the program cancellations would have to lead to a declining Pentagon budget topline… and not be replaced by some other expenditure.

Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center assesses the $330 billion savings claim in a 5 November 2010 post this way:

Gates has not cut $330 billion from defense. When he announced hardware cuts, he said the out-year savings were estimated at $330 billion, but he didn’t cut a nickel from the projected defense budgets; he wants, as he has clearly said, to use those savings for other investments, not give them back to the taxpayer. And the figure is way too big, anyway, because he terminated the F-22 and the C-17 cargo plane when neither one of them was in the long-term budget (he has been trying to let both programs arrive at a normal death, as planned, and Congress keeps getting in the way.) It is even more too big because his savings figure did not net out the alternative investments he proposed for the same missions, like replacing the terminated Future Combat Systems (FCS) vehicle with a new Army vehicle R&D program. So a big kerfuffle over a non-number, but no big cut in defense here.

To date the Pentagon or OMB have not produced any accounting of these supposed savings from Secretary Gates’ program cancellations which indicate where they come out of the topline. Meanwhile it would be wise to substantially discount their value when thinking about overall Federal spending.

What we know for sure is that Pentagon budgets continue to rise despite the “savings.” The Pentagon and the Administration might argue that the Pentagon budget would have grown faster if Secretary Gates had not made those “courageous” program cuts. Possibly. But that “would have been” is simply not the same as actually contributing to deficit reduction which requires real cuts in the topline of the Pentagon budget.

In terms of cutting the topline of the Pentagon budget, when we remove the long-awaited reductions in war costs, we can count just $8 billion that Secretary Gates has given up to deficit reduction in the five year defense plan (FYDP) through FY16.

Looking out ten years there are more savings in the President’s projections. My colleague Carl Conetta finds $164 billion less Pentagon spending in the overlapping four “out years” (FY17-20) when comparing the President’s FY11 and Fy12 budget submissions.

We might speculate that this is where we realize some of Secretary Gates’ $330 billion in savings, but it would be only speculation…

So far no one in the Administration has demonstrated in sufficient detail how the Pentagon will contribute much of anything toward reducing the Federal deficit, rounding errors notwithstanding.

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