Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to go before Congress today and defend the $614 billion proposed budget for the military in the coming fiscal year. Not because that’s a staggering amount, especially with spending caps all over the government. Because it’s too small for Congress’ tastes.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the nation’s top military leader on Tuesday defended the Pentagon’s slimmed-down, $614 billion budget, telling lawmakers it’s time to show Congress is serious about reducing the deficit.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta warned lawmakers that budget cuts will hit all 50 states, but he says the reductions have been carefully planned and there is little room for changes.

The testimony immediately met resistance from members of the committee. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel’s chairman, insisted that the military look to closing bases in Europe and overseas before targeting installations in the United States. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s top Republican and Obama’s presidential foe in 2008, expressed reservations with the budget and complained that it “continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests.”

Note the narrative at work here. Almost everyone involved – the members of the Armed Services Committee, the Defense Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the AP writer putting together the article – are so invested in the idea that this is an austere military budget, that nobody questions the notion that $614 billion is a staggering amount of money. Even in the context of a large overall budget, it’s a hefty percentage, and remember, that doesn’t include Homeland Security or NSA or CIA or a host of other agencies that do at least some of our war-fighting these days. But because it’s a stitch smaller than last year, this total absurdity – “slimmed-down, $614 billion budget” – passes without comment. Incidentally, almost all of the savings come from the fact that we’re not fighting a war in Iraq anymore. The base budget is pretty much unchanged. And over time, the military budget is primed to grow, just a bit more slowly than before.

While there is a modest decrease proposed for 2013 (about 2.3% in inflation-adjusted terms), the Pentagon’s five-year plan anticipates base military spending reaching $567 billion by FY17. These are only reductions in the sense that the Pentagon is spending less than they would have liked (and than the CBO had initially projected based on the Pentagon’s plans). This comes after historically high levels of spending, with military budgets increasing by almost two-thirds over the last decade.

The changes to the military budget effectively move the United States from spending more on its military than every country in the world combined, to spending just a little bit less on its military than every country in the world combined. And of course, this is just the President’s budget request. Once Congress gets done with its work, the numbers could rise, especially if they succeed in reversing the trigger cuts to the military, which the Obama budget doesn’t show at all.

There are legitimate policy papers showing a path to an additional trillion dollars in military spending cuts. But instead, we have a debate about how impoverished they are at the Pentagon, with only $614 billion sloshing around in 2013.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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