Elections make defense spending cuts more difficult, says UAB expert

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' recently announced plan to cut nearly $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years isn't likely to be embraced by Congress as it looks ahead to the 2012 elections, according to a UAB study that examined U.S. data over a 44-year period.  

"Military spending is affected by the electoral cycles," says University of Alabama at Birmingham Assistant Professor of Sociology Casey Borch, Ph.D., an expert on defense spending who teaches in UAB's Department of Sociology and Social Work. "Historically, about a year or two before national elections you can see a fairly substantial increase in military spending. During an election year and immediately after an election year is when military spending is reduced."

And, he says, the reluctance to cut military spending prior to an election year holds true among both Republicans and Democrats alike.

"It's largely because you have people coming up for re-election and politicians want to make sure the economy is as strong as possible — and one of the good ways to ensure economic stability is to increase military spending," says Borch. "Increased spending on defense is something that is largely supported by the public and is commonly used to shore up a bad economy."

Borch's conclusions are based on an examination of time-series public and employment datasets covering the military spending of 49 U.S. states from 1964 to 2008. On average, he says, military spending increases about 9 percent in the year prior to the national elections. Borch recently presented findings from the study at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Gates has proposed slashing the military budget by eliminating the Joint Services Command, cutting the number of top-ranking generals and officers and cutting about 10 percent of private contractors from the defense intelligence budget.

"A 10 percent cut on private contracts seems unlikely given the weak economy we are in now," says Borch. "If he does cut, I suspect that they will hire more Department of Defense employees and it really won't be a cut. Military spending is one of the best stimulus packages that the government has, and it has been that way since the 1940s.

"To cut military spending on contracts when we have a relatively weak economy doesn't seem to be a strategy that would be politically or economically useful."

Some states would have a lot to lose from spending cuts. States with legislators on the Armed Services Committee see significant increases in the amount of military spending being funneled to them, Borch says. "And it doesn't matter if the legislator on the committee is a Republican or Democrat or a U.S. senator or representative.

"In fact, states that have a legislator on the Armed Services Committee will receive on average about $120 million more in military spending than a state that doesn't have a legislator on the committee," Borch says. "If a state has two legislators on the committee, the state will receive double that amount in military spending. And the longer a congressman serves on the committee, the more funds they bring to the state."

The researchers also found that states that support the winning candidate for president are usually rewarded with increased levels of military spending, Borch says. And if cuts to the military are made, they are not made in states that support the president

"For instance, when President Bill Clinton cut the military budget, he largely cut the budgets in states that were predominately Republican and left the states that were predominately Democrat alone," Borch says. "And then when George W. Bush came into office, he did a massive relocation project where he closed some military bases in some states, opened them in others and moved lots of money from the blue states to the red states."

Overall, however, the U.S. military budget has decreased over the last 40 years, says Borch.

"The new military is less dependent on the foot soldier, guns, ammunition and tanks and more dependent on intelligence, smart bombs and people who can use technology to deliver the weapons that used to be carried by the foot soldier," he says.