In November 2011, Representative Barney Frank, the mouthy Massachusetts Democrat, announced that he would retire from Congress in January 2013. A few short weeks after his retirement last month, he had second thoughts about leaving Washington. He asked Governor Deval Patrick to consider appointing him interim senator after the incumbent, John Kerry, was confirmed as secretary of state.
Frank wanted the appointment, which would last only a few months, to participate in fights on the debt ceiling, which seemed certain to dominate the early days of the 113th Congress.
“The first months of the new Senate will be among the most important in American history,” Frank told the Boston Globe. “I may be a little immodest, but I called the governor and said I think I can be a help in reaching a fair solution to some of these issues.”
Frank didn’t get the opportunity. Instead, it went to Patrick’s chief of staff, Mo Cowan, whose interim appointment, after an earlier appointment of Tim Scott to a South Carolina vacancy, marks the first time in U.S. history that two blacks are serving in the Senate simultaneously.
It’s a shame Frank isn’t sticking around -- but not because of the debt ceiling, which turned out to be nothing when Republicans retreated from their threat to hold the nation’s credit hostage in exchange for reduced spending. Rather, it’s the onerous “sequester” spending cuts and the contretemps over Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary, both of which have focused heavily on the prospect of defense cuts, where the sharp-tongued, policy-savvy Frank could be playing an essential role.
In the most recent issue of the journal Democracy, Frank, the rare politician able to write a genuinely interesting article, makes a strong argument that the threats the U.S. faces have changed, the politics of military spending have changed and the amount Congress spends on defense must change, too.
“There were so many encouraging signs for liberals in the election results this year that one of the most significant has been overlooked,” he wrote. “For the first time in my memory, a Democratic candidate for President argued for less military spending against a Republican candidate who called for great increases -- and the Democrat won.”
Liberals are not alone in voicing skepticism of increased defense spending, Frank notes: “Ron Paul, who goes far beyond most liberals in his eagerness to impose severe military cuts, was a popular figure with a significant base of GOP support not despite taking this position but in part because of it.”
And while Paul might be a marginal (though influential) figure on the right, his opinion drew surprising support, including that of Clint Eastwood, the star attraction of the 2012 Republican National Convention.
“One of the few coherent things he said in that memorable debate that he lost to a chair was that the President should have announced his willingness to pull out of Afghanistan altogether,” Frank wrote of Eastwood. “This criticism of the President from an antiwar position elicited cheers from the Republican delegates.”
Over the past decade, there have been two major vehicles for military spending. The first is the base defense budget, which is what most people think of as defense spending. The second consists of supplemental bills by which the money for Iraq and Afghanistan is appropriated. “The public does not fully understand that the defense budget is paid for to a certain extent as people pay lawyers who are on retainer, but who then get extra funds if they have to go into court,” Frank wrote.
Altogether, the increase in military spending has been astonishing. Under President George W. Bush, the base military budget jumped from $287 billion in 2001 to $513 billion in 2009; under President Obama, it jumped again, to $530 billion in fiscal year 2012. The supplemental war spending added as much as $150 billion a year above that. All told, military spending was about $700 billion in 2010 and 2011 -- roughly $250 billion more than we spent on Medicare.
The effect on budgets has been immense. When conservatives argue that our current deficits show a spending problem, not a taxing problem, the spending they’re talking about -- knowingly or not -- is defense. Charles Blahous, a former staff member for President George W. Bush’s National Economics Council, pointed out that, “Had the tax relief never been enacted but everything else happened as it has, we still would face enormous deficits today.”
Blahous found that about a quarter of the shift from Bill Clinton-era surpluses to Bush and Obama deficits was due to tax cuts and another quarter due to the deterioration of the economy. The other half resulted from the spending side of the ledger. And what drove the spending increases?
“Much of this, of course, happened after the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001,” Blahous wrote. “The U.S. thereafter conducted major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also increased expenditures on homeland security.” No other spending initiative -- not the stimulus or Medicare’s prescription drug benefit or the Affordable Care Act or anything else -- generated remotely similar costs over the past 12 years.
The irony, of course, is that Republicans want to attack federal spending, but not the military spending that has been the single largest contributor to deficits. Their remedy is to keep taxes low, defense spending high and seek savings elsewhere. It would be nice to have someone like Frank around to skewer the absurdity of that prescription.
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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