While candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan to pay for her “Medicare for All” proposal has drawn critiques from almost every quarter, including from her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, those critiques have focused mostly on her ideas for increasing tax revenues. In particular, her plan to harvest about $800 billion from defense budgets has drawn little comment. In the context of a health-care expansion reckoned in the tens of trillions, the Pentagon cuts are a drop in the ocean. Yet in the context of military budgets, they matter a lot. And in the further context of Democratic Party priorities and reasoning, they perhaps matter a lot more. Warren’s Medicare-for-All scheme may be dead on arrival, but her desire to “take a sharp knife” to defense budgets is all but certain to survive as Democratic orthodoxy.
To begin with, Warren’s defense numbers are as sketchy as any of the figures in her plan. The $800 billion number is derived from a potted analysis of the “Overseas Contingency Operations” spending — what the Pentagon calls the supplemental appropriations required to cover the costs of the post-9/11 wars and other related expenses. This “OCO” money has fluctuated more or less in connection with the size of the forces deployed; it was highest (approaching $200 billion per year) during the years of the Iraq “surge,” when 150,000 troops were employed at the height of that counterinsurgency campaign. In recent years, as withdrawals from Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria have taken effect, the amount of actual money allocated to wartime operations has fallen to roughly $75 billion. However, the nominal amounts of OCO have stayed above $150 billion. That’s because this allows both the administration and the Congress to circumvent the spending caps enshrined in the Budget Control Act of 2011, providing funding for needs that should properly be included in the so-called “base” budget.