Tea party activists from coast to coast are trashing big government generally, and big government spending in particular.

They tick off ways that they think the government should save money. Stop the bailouts. No more earmarks. Repeal health-care reform, even though it will save us money. Tea party candidates like Sharron Angle, the GOP nominee battling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, even want to close the Department of Education. This formerly fringe idea, also enshrined in Maine’s GOP state platform, is gaining traction as the tea party’s influence grows.

Bring government down to the bare bones, the tea-party people say.

Mainstream reporters are dutifully noting all this, for the most part. Meanwhile, they’re failing to ask tea party activists about a more effective way to curb deficit-building federal spending that’s not on their cost-cutting wish-list: the wasteful programs embedded in the world’s largest bureaucracy, the Pentagon.

We’re spending about $750 billion on the military this year. That accounts for about 40 percent of the federal budget, if you include mandatory outlays like interest on the debt and Social Security. It accounts for over half of the so-called discretionary budget, the amount Congress divides up and spends annually.

However you describe the Pentagon budget, it’s a lot of money. As budget analysts of all political persuasions will tell you, it’s replete with waste.

Over $60 billion could be trimmed from the defense budget, according to the Unified Security Budget taskforce headed by Institute for Policy Studies research fellow Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense. The savings, they say, would come from just cutting fighters, submarines, and other big weapons that don’t make sense given the threats faced by the U.S. today. Other military analysts have identified other ways to save even more money, and activists on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the tea party argue that the trillion dollars we’ve spent on wars in Iraq and Iran were squandered.

If the Pentagon isn’t red meat for the ferocious tea bag express, what is?

Yet, the issue is off the media radar screen for the most part. A Google News search for “tea party” and “Defense Department” yields about a dozen articles. Searching for “tea party” and “health care” produces more than 2,700. But one recent article in Politico, titled “Robert Gates May Get Lift from Tea Parties,” did tackle the issue. It provides an excellent example of the kind of Pentagon-related questions reporters across the country should ask tea party candidates.

Politico, a Washington newspaper with a laser focus on politics, asked numerous tea party activists whether military spending should be on their budget-cut hit list. And all of them said it should be.

The article quotes tea party leader Mike Pence (R-IN) saying “If we are going to get our fiscal house in order, everything has to be on the table.”

But Pence opposes cutting a redundant engine for the F-35 fighter jet. Rolls Royce, a big fish in Indiana, makes the engine.

So Pence isn’t joining forces with the Obama administration to cut this second engine, widely seen as unnecessary, and tea partiers haven’t been up in arms about his embrace of Pentagon waste.

Reporters should call Pence on this inconsistency. They should find out if other tea party candidates are willing to join President Barack Obama on this issue. Despite the recession and noise about the deficit, Congress is bitterly fighting even his relatively small defense cuts.

Tea party candidate Chuck DeVore, who lost a bid for the GOP Senate nomination in California, told Politico that defense cuts are “not an issue” that came up in the hundreds of tea party events he attended on the campaign trail in California.

Yet he and others like him, when asked, say they won’t shy away from the issue.

Against this backdrop, it’s time for reporters to ask tea party leaders for specifics. How much would they trim from the Pentagon budget? What weapons systems would they cut? Would they join Democrats and the president to get the job done?

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Jason Salzman

A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is Board Chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. www.bigmedia.org