Defense Spending: Do Presidents Make a Difference?

by | Jul 8, 2016


It’s generally taken for granted in the press and by the “Defense Cognoscenti” that the election of a president is a major determinant of the size and shape of the defense budget. It is also conventional wisdom that Republicans have been more pro-defense than Democrats — with the degree of being pro-defense measured by the size of the defense budget. If these assumptions were universally true, the historical record would bear this out. But the historical record is mixed, to put it charitably.

If one breaks down defense spending into totals for four-year presidential terms since the dawn of the Cold War, one might argue that Ronald Reagan’s defense budgets proved that presidents make a difference, but the distinction is a weak one at best, as the patterns of budget totals in this figure suggest. And if one compares the defense budget total for all the Republican presidents combined to that for all the Democratic presidents combined (see this graphic), the distinction vanishes. Finally if one simply looks at the statistical distributions of annual defense budgets independently of when they occurred, parsed by party of the sitting president, the distinction between Republicans and Democrats vanishes again.

So, if the political party of the president or the person of the president does not make make a major difference when it comes to size of the defense budget, what does? This is a question that goes to the heart of political economy of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex or MICC.

Ace investigative journalist Kelley Vlahos presents a more realistic answer to the preceding question in this essay. She argues that the essence of the defense spending game lies more in the cooperative decisions made in the industrial-congressional relations of the MICC’s iron triangle than with the person or political party of the President. It is a view that is consistent with my experience.

Reprinted with permission from The Blaster website.


  • Franklin C. Spinney

    Franklin C. Spinney is an American former military analyst for the Pentagon who became famous in the early 1980s for what became known as the “Spinney Report”, criticizing what he described as the reckless pursuit of costly complex weapon systems by the Pentagon, with disregard to budgetary consequences.

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