Last week, President Donald Trump proposed a budget with a $54 billion increase to the Department of Defense
Daniel B. Baer: A portion of that increase should be allotted to military personnel
Editor’s Note: Daniel B. Baer was the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The headlines surrounding President Donald Trump’s first budget have focused on what he proposes for each federal agency: slashing the EPA by 31%, reducing the State Department and USAID budget by 29% and giving $54 billion more to the Department of Defense.
The top-line numbers of the budget, which was crafted with the help of Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, have been so drastic that there has been relatively little focus on what’s underneath.
Many Republicans have cheered the $54 billion proposed increase in defense spending – not just because the defense contractors who are disproportionately contributors to their campaigns stand to gain, but also because military spending is an evergreen issue with the GOP base. And these days, Republicans are desperate to find points on which they can agree with a Republican White House that is out of step with the traditional policies of the party of Reagan.
But cheering for a number rather than a plan misses the point: the goal isn’t to spend more, it’s to achieve outcomes. Our military should be funded at a level that allows it to maintain unquestionable global dominance, including its ability to operate in multiple theaters simultaneously and to effectively counter emerging threats and challenges like cyberattacks.
To achieve these goals, any budget that increases defense spending should include an investment in our most important military asset: our men and women in uniform, specifically the 1.1 million active-duty enlisted personnel in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.
Many Americans would be surprised to know that an enlisted soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman starts on around $9.25 an hour (and that’s if you assume a 40-hour work week.) They get a subsistence allowance for food of less than $100/week. So that bumps the hourly wage up to $11.25, which is still less than the minimum wage in some parts of the United States.
Obviously, the wages increase over time, but even after more than a decade and several promotions, most enlisted personnel still hover around the median salary in the United States – less than $50,000 a year. And the vast majority make less than $40,000.
Some will say “service is its own reward,” and while it’s surely true that financial benefits shouldn’t be the only reason that someone goes into the military (or any form of public service), compensation still matters – and the compensation we pay as a society is part of demonstrating respect for the job that our public servants do.
For about 7.5% of Trump’s proposed increase in the defense budget, around $4 billion, we could give a 10% raise to all our enlisted personnel. That’s right – every one of the more than 1 million enlisted men and women could see their basic pay go up 10%. That’s enough to put that new pickup truck within reach or buy new school clothes for the kids. It would be good for the economy, too – additional spending power to those making less than $50,000 generally translates at a high rate (almost 100%) to additional consumption.
And Democrats, in particular, have an opportunity to be the champions of the troops. Trump says he wants more defense spending because he wants a stronger military, but he has repeatedly disparaged military personnel, including with his recent claim that our soldiers “don’t fight to win.” Democrats can and should champion the argument that a strong military starts with the hardworking fellow Americans who serve in our armed forces.
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The blunt instrument of sequestration – the law that emerged from the debt-ceiling impasse in 2013 and ties spending cuts and caps in parts of the federal budget to spending levels in other parts of the budget – has been an obstacle to justified increases in defense spending in the past. But sequestration shouldn’t be replaced with a blank check; any additional defense spending, whether on military personnel or hardware, should fit within a broader strategic concept.
The President needs to do more than present a list of planes, ships and weapons systems that he’d like to buy. He and Secretary of Defense James Mattis owe Congress a clear, well-reasoned articulation of how the spending he’s suggesting is required to enhance our military readiness and our ability to confront 21st century threats.
Congress must carry out its oversight role and ask the right questions to make sure that American taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck, and that unwarranted proposals are eliminated. But it should pay special attention to our men and women in uniform, and give them the raise they deserve.