With Super Committee Dead, Showdown Likely Over Defense Cuts
The ultimately unsurprising death of the Super Committee has caused attention to be turned to the next battle in Washington. Already, it seems fairly apparent that there’s going to be some effort in Congress to stop, scale back, or change, the automatic cuts that would now go into effect beginning in 2013 as part of the August 2011 debt ceiling deal. There’s been only a small smattering of dissent so far on the Democratic side over the cuts in non-defense discretionary spending. However, the subject of the $600 billion (over ten years) in cuts to the Pentagon budget has been the subject of contention on the right since before the ink was dry on the debt ceiling dealing. The arguments against defense cuts haven’t just come from the right, though. Secretary of Defense Panetta has been arguing against them since August and, most recently, just yesterday:
Automatic spending cuts that could result from a special congressional committee’s failure to reach a deficit-reduction agreement could “tear a seam” in defense, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday.
The so-called super committee’s failure on Monday to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit-cutting measures triggers up to $600 billion in additional defense cuts over 10 years beginning in 2013.
“If Congress fails to act over the next year, the Department of Defense will face devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation’s defense,” Panetta said in a statement.
“The half-trillion in additional cuts demanded by sequester would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned.”
Meanwhile, leading Republicans on Capitol Hill are already saying that they will block the cuts to defense spending:
Republican lawmakers moved quickly Monday to protect the Pentagon from automatic budget cuts that will be triggered by the supercommittee’s failure, with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee saying he’ll soon introduce legislation to repeal them.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) vowed to eliminate the automatic cuts, which would take effect in 2013, citing dire warnings from his panel’s analysts and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the impact of an additional $500 billion reduction on the nation’s security.
“I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military,” he said just before the supercommittee admitted defeat Monday afternoon.
McKeon, who has led the fight in Congress to protect the Pentagon, is not the first lawmaker to vow to repeal the automatic cuts. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a supercommittee member, said Sept. 8 — the same day the panel first met — that he would “do my best to see to it that [the cuts] never took effect.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and fellow GOP panel member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said they were working on a plan to minimize the effect of the cuts on Pentagon spending. “As every military and civilian defense official has stated, these cuts represent a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and cannot be allowed to occur,” the two senators said in a statement.
Not surprisingly, you’re hearing this same message from most of the Republican candidates for President, except of course Ron Paul, all of whom are repeating the warnings that allowing these cuts to go through will somehow devastate the Pentagon and compromise America’s national security. For his part, the President said last night that he would not accept any effort to roll back the automatic cuts, unless it was accompanied by another package of deficits reduction that was equal or greater than the cuts that are now on schedule to be implemented:
President Obama Monday evening blamed Republicans for the failure of the super committee to meet its deadline for a debt plan and warned that he will veto any attempt to eliminate the automatic spending cuts that go into effect with that failure.
In an appearance in the White House briefing room a little more than an hour after the committee officially conceded failure, the president said his answer to those who want to eliminate those cuts “is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.”
If it actually came to that, I doubt Congress would be able override a Presidential veto. In all likelihood, though, it’s unlikely that we”ll actually see any legislation reach the President’s desk on this issue before the 2012 elections. If twelve people couldn’t come to an agreement on a budget plan this autumn, it’s not at all likely that 535 of them are going to be able to come up with something during an election year. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that the Republicans on Capitol Hill would be united on this issue. The heads of the Defense-related committees (who also happen to get campaign contributions from defense contractors) have vowed to roll back the cuts, as have Senators like McCain, Lieberman, and Graham. However, there are budget hawks in both the House and Senate GOP that aren’t likely to be as enthusiastic to undo this deal unless it can be replaced with something better, and the GOP leadership in the House isn’t about to take apart the very deal they negotiated.
The ironic thing about all the Republican/defense industry/Pentagon paranoia over the sequestration cuts to defense spending is that they don’t really amount to very much at all in the long run. Only a few days after the debt ceiling deal was made, when dissent over the defense cuts was already building, it was already clear that the fear mongering was misplaced:
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.”
Moreover, it’s no small point that, in real terms, we are spending more on defense now than we have at any time since the end of World War II:
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 idea that these relatively modest cuts, which don’t even go into effect until the 2014 Fiscal Year for defense and are then spread out over ten years, are going to significantly harm the military if allowed to take place simply defies logic.It’s not surprising to see the service Chiefs and the Defense Secretary arguing against defense cuts. To some extent, their job is to protect their turf and be advocates for their department in the budget process. However, the fact remains that these are not draconian cuts regardless of how harsh their rhetoric might be and that, even if they are implemented, the United States military budget will still far exceed that of any other nation in the world. Moreover, it’s the job of Congress to look at the budget as a whole and, in an era where we’re being told that everyone is supposed to sacrifice to bring the nation’s fiscal house in order, there’s no good argument for anything being off the table, and that includes defense spending. Republicans came into office in 2010 claiming to have rediscovered their fiscal conservatism. If they try to back track on this deal, they’ll reveal that was all smoke and mirrors after all. If the Democrats on Capitol Hill let them do it, then they’ll be complicit in the hypocrisy.