Republican Senators Leading Effort To Halt Automatic Pentagon Cuts

Not surprisingly, Republicans are trying to reverse the automatic cuts to defense spending agreed to in August.

Following up on the comments that Secretary of Defense Panetta and many Republican politicians made as long ago as November when the so-called “super committee” failed to come up with a workable debt reduction package, a group of Republican Senators is working to stop the automatic cuts to defense spending negotiated last August as part of the debt ceiling deal:

Senate Republicans on Thursday offered a plan to delay for a year more than $1 trillion in mandatory cuts – half of which would come from the Pentagon — by trimming the federal workforce and extending a pay freeze for federal employees imposed by the Obama administration.

At a news conference, the senators appealed to President Barack Obama to negotiate on the proposal, noting that it contained ideas Democrats have previously supported. They quoted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s dire warning that allowing the cuts to take effect in January would be “shooting ourselves in the head.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said Panetta “either needs to be fired because he’s so off-base or we need to listen to him and fix the problem … this is now a time for both parties to come together and fix something that has to be fixed.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the GOP effort to undo sequestration “unfair” and vowed to oppose the legislation.

“I believe that an agreement is an agreement. I believe that a handshake is a handshake. Here we have more than a handshake – we have a law that is in place in our country,” Reid said at a news conference. “They should keep their word. That’s what the American people expect them to do, and that’s what I expect them to do.”

Other Democrats also panned the proposal, sticking to their insistence that increased tax revenues be part of the solution.

“If Republicans are serious about replacing the automatic spending cuts,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, “then they are going to need to work with Democrats to find an equal amount of balanced deficit reduction that doesn’t simply increase the pain for the middle class.”

The Republican proposal apparently centers around using attrition to reduce the size of the Federal workforce, and keeping the Federal Pay Freeze in effect, although that by itself doesn’t amount to nearly enough money to make up the amount of the defense cuts. Of course, it may not matter at all because President Obama has said that he would veto any attempt to rollback the sequestration cuts agreed to in August unless it was accompanied by a replacement package of cuts and tax increases that would decrease the deficit by at least as much as the sequestration cuts. Before it even got to President Obama, though, it would have to get through the Senate and, based on the reaction of Senate Democrats, it really doesn’t seem like this package is going to go anywhere at all.

Of course, that isn’t going to stop Republicans and commentators on the right from assertion that these cuts are going to “gut” the military. We started seeing that argument being made before the ink was even dry on the debt ceiling deal, and it’s been repeated many times since then.  As usually is the case in Washington, though, what we’re talking about here aren’t spending cuts, but cuts in the rate of growth of spending and, in the end, the Pentagon won’t end up much worse off under the current law than it would have under the budget that was under consideration last August 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.”

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 total amount of the sequestration cuts amount to about $50 billion less in projected spending every year for ten years. 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.

There’s another part to this equation, of course. Many of the Senators who have signed on to this effort to reverse the sequestration cuts and replace them with a gimmick that may or may not reduce spending are among the most supposedly fiscally conservative members of the upper chamber. Instead of coming up with a credible comprehensive package of spending cuts, they’re working to eliminate a mechanism that, although far from perfect, does impose some degree of fiscal discipline on the Federal Budget. It’s not perfect, but it was a start. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Kamikaze Caucus in the House that didn’t want to raise the debt ceiling at all and the insane GOP insistence that taxes are never on the table when the budget is discussed, it’s probable that we could have gotten a much better deal in August than we actually did. That’s water under the bridge, of course, but when it’s combined with this obvious effort to undo a package of actual cuts in the growth of spending, one has to wonder just how committed these Senators actually are.

No, you really don’t have to wonder. Just as Democrats will never allow real entitlement cuts, Republicans (except those of the Ron and Rand Paul variety) will never allow real defense cuts. And our problems will just continue to get worse.

Graphic via The Fiscal Times

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    This was my kvetch about the plan from day 1. It was obvious there would be a move to protect DoD from sequestration. Then what? Defense is most of the discretionary budget. The whole thing was a charade.

  2. I suppose it depends on how serious Senate Democrats are about opposing this move, and how serious Obama is about vetoing a bill that tries to reverse the cuts.

  3. Eric says:

    To me, the idea of the supercommittee was good just for the fact that it would let the people know that officials in Congress have failed to do their job and try to work out a deal AND there will be consequences if and when they fail. They failed to make the agreement, but they didn’t want the original deal to go through because it makes them look bad.

    Now, these officials are saying, “hey we were just kidding about the automatic cuts, we’ll just repeal that law and get back to the way things were going.” This sickens me. Not only does this further prove that officials on both sides (in this example, Republicans) are not serious about solving the debt problem, but they can also get themselves out of a situation they created. This new power will undoubtedly be abused from now on.

    That was just a waste of time.

  4. john personna says:

    Two things:

    First, we should emphasize that Republicans proposed this plan with automatic cuts as their alternative to the grand bargain. This makes their defection that much more craven.

    Second, you close with the claim the Democrats never cut social programs. Who signed the bill to end Welfare as we knew it, and to put in a lifetime cap in benefits? It would be impossible for it to be a Democratic President, right?

  5. Ian says:


    Good post. I remember when Boehner said something to the effect of “Let’s link arms and jump off together”. I wish he had meant it. Each side wants to force the other to swallow the poison pill. Unless both avenues are taken, cuts and revenue increases, its just more of the same.

    The original debt deal was about as one sided as you could imagine. I remember thinking that if Obama wasn’t a socialist, he should consider becoming one if that was the best he could get (joke stolen from PJ ORourke). Now I think he might have been smarter than I though. The Pentagon has to be a part of the deficit reduction deal. Now we have huge cuts, and Republicans voted for it.

  6. David M says:

    @john personna: To be fair to Doug, his actual quote was (emphasis added)

    Democrats will never allow real entitlement cuts

    There is plenty of evidence the Democratic Party would support modest changes to entitlement programs, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the level Doug would like to see. As to the point of the post, yes the current GOP doesn’t care one whit about the deficit other than to use it against Obama. They are beyond useless as every time a someone from the GOP is elected, the deficit rises.

  7. Moosebreath says:

    David M,

    Entitlement cuts of the level Doug wants to see does not mean the same thing as real entitlement cuts.

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Fiscal frauds. Every single one of them.

  9. walt moffett says:

    Utterly shocking to see politicians trying to have it both ways, putting local interests above national and setting up the other side for a fall. Yet, that’s the system we have

  10. @David M:

    As others have said, it makes no sense to chase the meaning of “real” out to the fringes.

    The fact is that Democrats have cut, and are cutting all across the country now. Example:

    Gov. Jerry Brown announced nearly $1 billion in new cuts to state spending on Thursday, slashing spending on higher education in California and eliminating funding for free school bus service but avoiding deeper cuts that many had feared.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I suppose it depends on how serious Senate Democrats are about opposing this move, and how serious Obama is about vetoing a bill that tries to reverse the cuts.

    I’d say they were pretty serious since they’ve got the Republicans between a rock and hard place on this one. Just another example of what Sullivan calls Obama’s ability to play a long game. If Republicans want to reduce these cuts they are going have break the no tax increase pledge. In a wider sense this argument encapsulates the total phoniness of Republican plans to reduce the size of govt. It’s a complete mirage they’ve sold their base because it’s simply never going to happen. Republicans and their allies are as married to our $5 trilliion federal and state Leviathon as any Democrat.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:


    Now I think he might have been smarter than I though.

    Yuh think?

  13. James says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    No, you really don’t have to wonder. Just as Democrats will never allow real entitlement cuts, […]

    Wait, what about all though cuts to Medicare in the Affordable Care act, that, as you may recall, Republicans endlessly demagogued over?

  14. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    We’re missing the big picture here:

    1) This is spending that is being proposed by Republicans, therefore it doesn’t increase the deficit (which doesn’t matter anyway–refer to that famous economist, Dick Cheney). Moreover, the GOP needs to have full DoD funding for “Planting the Tree of Liberty–East Gulf Project” or else President Romney won’t be able to kill a bunch of other people’s kids send patriots to Iran to protect the world from Iranian nukes.

    2) All of the cuts in the federal workforce can come from cutting the salaries of the lowest paid federal workers–who James just yesterday identified as underproductive relative to wages and benefits paid–so the net effect will be to the benefit of the overall government and economy as a whole. If we could figure out how to give them the reduced benefits they deserve in pension and health benefits, too, we’d have it made–the economy would recover itself spontaneously and there would be unicorns and pixie dust for everyone (in the top 1%).

  15. anjin-san says:

    Republicans are not serious about the deficit… who knew?

  16. de stijl says:

    I can’t wait until a Republican makes the argument that cutting Defense spending will negatively impact unemployment during these dire economic times.

    It’ll be ironific!

  17. David M says:

    It certainly confirms the case that the current GOP has 3 basic priorities: winning elections, increasing military spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy. That does seem to explain the last couple decades pretty well.

  18. Fog says:

    David M.
    I think the Republican mantra is (with apologies to Septimius Severus) “Enrich the donors, scorn the rest.”