Do Fiscal Hawkery and Supplemental Military Packages Mix?

Fiscal conservatives have been sounding the alarm about endemic federal deficits for years, but many also support the $95 billion supplemental foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan now before Congress. Can supplemental military spending be reconciled with budget balancing? Conservative hawks think so, but their faith is not supported by budget and political realities.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that annual deficits will increase from $1.5 trillion this year to almost $2.6 trillion in fiscal year 2034 and that publicly held federal debt will reach an unprecedented 166 percent of GDP by 2054.

With total government spending approaching $7 trillion and the national debt approaching $35 trillion, the hawks correctly assert that an additional $95 billion supplemental is merely a drop in the bucket. The real savings opportunities, they argue, are in entitlement programs; if those can be reformed, we can easily offset the cost of the military spending package.

There are at least two practical problems with this outlook. First, we can’t look at the current supplemental in isolation. Foreign military supplementals have become an annual ritual and cost trillions during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. And then, not long after President Biden ordered a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congress started passing Ukraine supplemental packages that have already totaled $113 billion.

Since the $61 billion earmarked for Ukraine in the latest supplemental won’t end the war, we can brace for further spending in 2025, 2026, and beyond. Unfunded, supplemental military spending packages are a habit Congress cannot seem to break, and they could easily add trillions of additional debt (especially when interest costs are included).

A second issue with supplementals is that they perpetuate a lack of budgetary discipline and play into the hands of big spenders. Progressives can credibly ask: “if foreign military aid is such an emergency that requires more deficit spending, why not child poverty or climate change or inadequate domestic infrastructure?” In previous negotiations over the main budget, we have sometimes seen Republicans make concessions on domestic spending caps to get more military spending.

Those who advocate higher defense spending and more supplementals often focus on the fact that entitlements are the biggest driver of spending growth. But cutting entitlements is very difficult politically, and the challenge becomes much harder when one is arguing for spending increases elsewhere.

Since they know that big cuts to Social Security and Medicare are unpopular, entitlement reform advocates such as former Presidential candidate Nikky Haley are reduced to making incremental proposals like raising the retirement age for future generations, a change that will have no near-term budgetary impact.

But advocating even small entitlement changes combined with ramped up military spending places the proponent in a rhetorical bind. Constituents wonder why their quality of life in retirement should be reduced so that more weapons can be sent to countries many thousands of miles away whose welfare appears to have no immediate relevance.

Getting majority support for drastic reductions in spending and deficits is an incredibly difficult challenge, but one widely acknowledged to be necessary. Burdening this effort by simultaneously advocating military spending increases compromises the fiscal hawks’ credibility, further lowering their odds of success.

The fact is that fiscal hawkery and military hawkery are contradictory. Rather than pretend otherwise, hawks need to choose one or the other.

Marc Joffe is a policy analyst specializing in financial issues. He has previously contributed articles on peace issues to and other publications.