Why Do the Percentages Vary from Group to Group?
The U.S. Government says that military spending amounts to 20% of the budget, the Center for Defense Information (CDI) reports 51%, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) reports 43%, and the War Resisters League claims 54%. Why the variation?
Different groups have different purposes in how they present the budget figures. WRL's goal has been to show the percentage of money that goes to the military (current and past) so that people paying or not paying their federal taxes would know what portion of their payments are military-oriented. Also, some of the numbers are for different fiscal years.
There are at least five different factors to consider when analyzing the U.S. budget:
- discretionary spending vs. total spending
- budget authority vs. outlays
- function vs. agency/department
- federal funds vs. unified budget
- time period
Discretionary Spending. The Center for Defense Information (CDI) has used "discretionary" spending budget items that Congress is allowed to tinker with which excludes so-called "mandatory" spending items (such as interest on the national debt and retirement pay). WRL does not make such distinctions and lumps them together.
Past Military Spending. If the government does not have enough money to finance a war (or spending for its hefty military budgets), they borrow through loans, savings bonds, and so forth. This borrowing (done heavily during World War II and the Vietnam War) comes back in later years as "hidden" military spending through interest payments on the national debt.
How much of the debt is considered "military" varies from group. As mentioned above, WRL uses 80% whereas FCNL uses 48%. Consequently, FCNL reports that 43% of the FY2007 budget is military (29% current military and 14% past military). WRL's figures are 54% of the FY2009 budget (36% current which includes 7% for Iraq & Afghanistan wars and 18% past).
Outlays vs. Budget Authority. WRL uses "outlays" rather than "budget authority," which is often preferred by the government, news media, and groups such as CDI. Outlays refer to spending done in a particular fiscal year, whereas budget authority refers to new spending authorized over a period of several future years. Consequently, CDI reported $421 billion in FY2005 budget authority for the military and $2,200 billion "over the next five years." While WRL reports outlays of $803 billion, plus an anticipated $162 billion in supplemental spending requests for Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus $484 billion in past military spending totaling $1,449 billion just for FY2009.
Function vs. Agency/Department. Not all military spending is done by the Department of Defense. For example, the Department of Energy is responsible for nuclear weapons. Consequently, calculations of military spending should consider the function of the budget item regardless of the department or agency in charge of it. However, not everyone agrees what constitutes a military function. For example, WRL includes the 70% of Homeland Security (which includes the Coast Guard), and half of NASA in military spending, while other groups do not.
Federal Funds vs. Unified Budget. WRL uses "federal funds" rather than the "unified budget" figures that the government prefers. Federal funds exclude trust fund money (e.g., social security), which is raised separately (e.g., the FICA and Medicare deductions in paychecks) and is specifically ear-marked for particular programs. By combining trust funds with federal funds, the percentage of spending on the military appears smaller, a deceptive practice first used by the government in the late 1960s as the Vietnam War became more and more unpopular.
What period are we talking about? Finally, there is some variation in figures because different fiscal years are used. WRL's figures (above) are for FY2009 (Oct. 1, 2008 to Sep. 30, 2009) as are the most recent U.S. government figures. FCNL sometimes does their analysis for the most recent completed year or FY2007 (Oct. 1, 2006 to Sep. 30, 2007).