Obama Claims Sequestration Cuts “Won’t Happen”
Perhaps the most surprising comment made during last night’s debate came when President Obama seemed to reach a conclusion that pretty much nobody else in Washington believes at the moment:
In an early exchange during Monday night’s presidential debate about foreign policy, President Obama confidently predicted that across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending scheduled to kick in early next year won’t take effect.
“It will not happen,” Obama said about so-called “sequestration” — the automatic, arbitrary spending reductions Congress passed during the debt limit fight last summer.
Obama did not say how the cuts would be averted. He has stipulated in the past that he will veto legislation to undo or rollback sequestration unless it is replaced with a balanced plan to reduce deficits in a more targeted way. That caveat suggests sequestration will take effect unless Republicans agree to raise taxes on higher-income earners — either with an affirmative vote, or by allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of the year.
It was a surprising comment to say the least considering the fact that negotiations toward any kind of a deal have essentially been delayed until after the election, and the prospects for a resolution during the lame-duck session that involves anything other than kicking the can down the road. Indeed, Obama’s rather emphatic statement last night would seem to have been a mistake to the extent that it leads Republicans to believe that they hold the upper hand in the negotiations, and that the President will end up accepting any deal that avoids the cuts in the end. The comments appear to have surprised Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate, largely because they don’t make sense in the context of current negotiations.
As for the cuts themselves, the Obama Administration has tried to blame the GOP for the fact that they were included in the budget deal, but a new book by Bob Woodward tells quite a different tale:
According to the book, excerpts of which were obtained by POLITICO ahead of the Sept. 11 release, President Barack Obama’s top deputies believed the prospect of massive defense cuts would compel Republicans to agree to a deficit-cutting grand bargain.
Then-OMB Director Jack Lew, now the White House chief of staff, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors pitched the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Woodward writes. Under the deal, which Republicans accepted after several rounds of bargaining, the federal debt ceiling was raised — staving off a potential financial crisis.
Called sequestration, the automatic budget cuts would reduce federal spending by roughly $1 trillion over the next decade, with half the savings taken from national security programs. Despite agreeing that sequestration is bad policy, since all accounts are reduced by an equal amount with no strategy, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach a deal to avert the cuts, which take effect Jan. 2.
Instead, the two sides have been locked in a vicious blame game.
“This book makes clear that the president put his own political interests ahead of our national security,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“House Republicans have passed a plan to protect our troops by replacing the sequester with common-sense spending cuts and reforms,” Smith told POLITICO. “It’s long past time for the president to show some leadership and present a concrete plan to do the same.”
The reality, of course, is that both sides agreed to these cuts because they believed, perhaps naively, that the much vaunted Supercommittee would be able to come up with an alternative plan before its November 2011 deadline expired. If that had happened, the cuts would have been zeroed out and replaced with a new budget package modeled on what the committee had come up with. That committee failed for a variety of reasons, many of them dealing with the fact that neither party was truly willing to deal with the non-defense budget items that matter the most in the budget debates, the so-called entitlements. Since the supercommittee failed, the sequestration cuts remain in place. That’s the deal these men and women agreed to, and that’s what they ought to accept.
More distressing, though, is the fact that the President seems to have joined the ranks of those who think the defense sequestration cuts are a bad idea because they will “gut” the military. Previously, he had made clear he would veto any bill that did this. This is a meme that was pushed since the very early days after the debt ceiling deal with completed, and Republican hawks quickly found an ally in their arguments against the cuts in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who asserted that the cuts would be devastating to the military. Soon, we saw Republicans in the House and the Senate, and a not insignificant number of Democrats from states with ties to the defense industry, calling for an end to the cuts. Earlier this year, House Republicans passing a bill gutting the defense cuts by replacing them with a series of cuts that would be politically unpalatable for most Democrats, and Mitt Romney has joined in by calling for the cuts to be delayed by at least a year. The cuts have also played a significant role in the Presidential and Senate races here in Virginia, where Republicans are hitting both Obama and Democratic Senate nominee Tim Kaine quite hard on the issue, especially in the ads being run in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater region, both of which are heavily populated with active and retired military and people with ties to the defense industry.
It’s been more than a year since the budget deal with done, and almost a year now since the Supercommittee officially failed, and the opponents the defense sequestration cuts have yet to make their case that these cuts would have a significant impact on the nation’s defenses. Those who have tried to make the case, such as Senator John McCain, have ended up resorting in nothing more than repeating unproven facts over and over again but their arguments end up coming off as absurd. Mainly, this is because we aren’t even talking about actual cuts in defense spending, we’re talking about are cuts in the rate of growth of spending. By the time we get to the end of the decade during which the cuts would be implemented, the Pentagon wouldn’t end up much worse off than it would have before the deal was made:
Rather than cutting $400 billion in defense spending through 2023, as President Barack Obama had proposed in April, the current debt proposal trims $350 billion through 2024, effectively giving the Pentagon $50 billion more than it had been expecting over the next decade.
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, experts said, the overall change in defense spending practices could be minimal: Instead of cuts, the Pentagon merely could face slower growth.
“This is a good deal for defense when you probe under the numbers,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center. “It’s better than what the Defense Department was expecting.”
Adjusted for inflation, the United States spent at most $580 billion a year on defense at the height of the Cold War. In the 2011 fiscal year, the Pentagon’s baseline budget is $549 billion, with another $159 billion allotted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a total of $708 billion. That total figure drops slightly to $670 billion in the 2012 budget proposal.
The suggestion that these cuts are going to harm our military readiness simply defies logic. That, perhaps is why the opponents of the cuts have moved on to a new argument, specifically that cutting the defense budget even by this modest amount would cause people in the defense industry to be laid off. However, as I pointed out a few months back, the defense budget is not a jobs program and it is inappropriate to make decisions about federal spending at this level based on that criteria. As I noted back in November, if we can’t afford to cut that, then we’re doing something wrong:
If we cannot afford to cut $50 billion a year from the defense budget then we will never get a handle on the exploding Federal Budget deficit, and the idea that the cuts that would have to be implemented would endanger America is the same kind of fearmongering we hear every time one weapons system or another gets questioned. You can be sure, for example, that the defense industry lobby has been whispering in the ears of Republicans all over Capitol Hill, because their chief concern isn’t what’s best for the United States, but what’s best for the defense industry.
Unfortunately, it seems as though that is the road we’re headed down.