Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, his would-be vice president Paul Ryan, and defense hawks in Congress are wrong that savings can't be found in the U.S. defense budget, according to Grover Norquist, the influential president of Americans for Tax Reform, who said that he will fight using any new revenues to keep military spending high.
"We can afford to have an adequate national defense which keeps us free and safe and keeps everybody afraid to throw a punch at us, as long as we don't make some of the decisions that previous administrations have, which is to over extend ourselves overseas and think we can run foreign governments," Norquist said Monday at an event at the Center for the National Interest, formerly the Nixon Center.
But Ryan's views are at odds with those of Norquist and other budget hawks, who argue that defense budgets can be trimmed. Ryan's budget plan provides for increasing military spending and doesn't suggest any tradeoff or specific defense reforms.
"Other people need to lead the argument on how can conservatives lead a fight to have a serious national defense without wasting money," Norquist said. "I wouldn't ask Ryan to be the reformer of the defense establishment."
Avoiding $54 billion of arbitrary defense cuts next year as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, in what's known as "sequestration," has been a focus of Romney's campaign and one of his main points of contrast with President Obama. Romney's views align him with defense hawks who are leading that effort on the Hill, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who support closing tax loopholes and deductions to avoid sequestration.
"You will get serious conversation from the advocates of Pentagon spending when they understand ‘here's the dollar amount, now make decisions," Norquist said. "They want to argue you have to raise taxes -- you can't solve the problem."
Norquist vowed to fight any effort to use the money saved by tax reform to pay for military spending or to avoid the sequester.
"You have guys saying ‘can we steal all your deductions and credits and give it to the appropriators,' and then when we get tax reform there will be no tax reform," Norquist said, referring to defense hawks. "The idea is that you are going to raise taxes on people to not think through defense priorities."
But Norquist predicted that the defense hawks will lose the battle inside the GOP. The ultimate decision-makers, he said, would be the heads of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, not the respective Armed Services Committees.
"Here's the good news. There's a very small number of them," Norquist said about the defense hawks. "The handful of [Republicans] that support that are either not coming back or they don't know yet that they are not coming back."
The Pentagon wastes money on bloated weapons systems, bases, and programs that are protected by politicians for parochial reasons, he said. Norquist said the defense hawks were not serious about saving money or reforming the Pentagon.
"If you're not looking like you're trying, nobody wants to help you, starting with me... There's a lack of seriousness," he said. "The guys who are saying ‘we're not going to cut Pentagon spending but we want to raise taxes,' they aren't making a sale... They are saying it's not a tax increase. It is, it is, it is."
Norquist said he believes in a non-interventionist foreign policy that eschews nation-building, much like the one former president George W. Bush campaigned on before he decided to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Bush decided to be the mayor of Baghdad rather than the president of the United States. He decided to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan rather than reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That had tremendous consequences," he said. "Rather than doing Doha [the trade round], we did Kabul."
Romney has promised to keep defense spending at 4 percent of U.S. GDP, but Norquist doesn't believe that defense spending should be pegged to the size of the U.S. economy or any other arbitrary number. He argued that the Republican Party needs to reexamine the actual defense needs and then work from there to determine how much to spend.
"Richard Nixon said that America's national defense needs are set in Moscow, meaning that we wouldn't have to spend so much if they weren't shooting at us," he said. "The guys who followed didn't notice that the Soviet Union disappeared."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.