Few things shock anymore, but it came as a bit of a surprise last week when Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, revealed how little he knows about the making of the budget.
The moment occurred on March 29, when Ryan told a National Journal forum in Washington, “We don’t believe the generals are giving us their true budget.”
Ryan backpedaled after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he and the other chiefs didn’t appreciate being called liars. “I really misspoke,” Ryan said on CNN—invoking the word often used by politicians who say what they mean, then realize they’ve sounded foolish. He added, “I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make.”
He went on, “What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first … and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number. We think it should have been the other way around.”
That was an odd thing for him to say. Ryan is the author of the Republicans’ alternative budget plan, a much-bandied contender for the No. 2 slot on Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket, and, according to David Brooks, “the most intellectually formidable member of the House.” Surely he knows that the process he finds so objectionable—the president comes up with a budget, the generals fit their plans around it—is the way things have always worked, and for good reasons.
The first reason is obvious: The American military answers to civilian control. This principle has been hammered into officers, at every step of their training, for at least the past 60 years when Gen. MacArthur challenged President Truman and went up in flames. Almost every general since has accepted, even welcomed, the arrangement.
The second is a bit subtler but still basic: This is the nature of a budget, not just for the Pentagon, but for every government agency, every company, every household. A budget is a tool for managing resources. Everyone wants more money, but the pot is finite; a budget resolves the tension.
Ryan should know this. The House committee he chairs was created in 1974 precisely to lay down an annual budget resolution—setting priorities on how to divvy up the federal budget (x dollars for defense, y for education, z for welfare, etc.) and thus imposing limits on how much the other, more parochial committees could dole out to the agencies they oversaw (or, more often, indulged). Things didn’t work out quite that way—the planners underestimated the power of the other panels’ chairmen and their clients—but the idea was to create a sort of supercommittee that could view the roles and missions of each federal department in the broader context of the nation’s resources and needs.
Certainly, the generals and admirals would like to have a larger budget; they’d like to have more troops, guns, missiles, planes, ships, and all the rest. The heads of all the other government agencies would like to have more of whatever they’re accustomed to buying, too.
By not giving these public servants everything they request, the president (or Congress) might be incurring real costs. Cutting budgets may mean more hungry children, less drinkable water, more perilous roads, or—yes—a less capable military.
Budgets manage something else besides resources: They manage risk. One could make the case (and Paul Ryan’s budget sets out to make it) that far fewer risks should be taken with the military’s budget. An unrepaired road might result in the deaths of a few people, but a weak defense could wreck the nation.
The argument is unassailable, but, that said, the burden falls on lawmakers like Ryan to ensure that the Pentagon’s programs are actually vital to the national defense—or at least that the risks of cutting a certain program are too great to incur.