Opinion: Boosting the military also means paying for it

A view of an entrance to Fort Moore near Columbus on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A view of an entrance to Fort Moore near Columbus on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

This week the U.S. House advanced a major defense policy bill that authorizes a 19.5% pay raise for service members in the lowest military ranks. The idea of a big pay hike is very popular in both parties this election year.

“I think the pay increase for the junior enlisted is extremely necessary,” said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. “The junior enlisted need this lift.”

The pay hike is the cornerstone of this year’s Pentagon authorization bill in the House, which has been named the Servicemember Quality of Life Improvement Act.

But there is one thing few lawmakers in Congress have been talking about — how to pay for it.

The yearly defense budget is edging closer to $900 billion, which means $1 trillion probably isn’t that far away.

But that growth also comes at a time when the yearly budget deficits for Uncle Sam are moving closer to $2 trillion. In May, the feds ran a deficit of $347 billion — for just one month!

In other words, the federal budget is so out of whack that even if you cut out all spending outside the military, veterans and homeland security, you wouldn’t slice the yearly deficit in half and you certainly wouldn’t balance the budget.

Over in the Senate, Republicans worried by threats from China have already publicly signaled that they want a large increase in defense spending this year.

“The U.S. Navy is the smallest and oldest it has been in over eight decades,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who is leading the charge for more money at the Pentagon. “Our Air Force is shrinking. Much of our military infrastructure is out of date.”

Let’s take this proposed military pay raise. The estimates are it will cost about $22 billion over five years — about the same price tag to buy two new aircraft carriers.

If you put each one up for a vote in the House and Senate, both would probably win.

There’s nothing wrong with supporting more money for defense. But evidently it’s going to be paid for like everything else these days, by adding to the deficit as the national debt nears $35 trillion.

It’s a far cry from the surplus times of 1999-2001. In 2000 and 2001, the federal government actually ran a surplus in six of the 12 months each year.

Now, we’re lucky if it happens once a year — in April, when tax returns are due.

The bottom line is that neither party has really tried to deal with oceans of red ink. It’s easy to spend. It’s much more difficult to pay for it.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com.