With Super Committee Dead, Showdown Likely Over Defense Cuts

With the Super Committee dead, 2012 is likely to see a fight over the defense cuts set to take place starting in 2013.

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.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Congress, Deficit and Debt, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. JKB says:

    If the citizens of Syria ever needed proof there’ll be no intervention, this is it. Any sending of US forces into another war would be like throwing gasoline on this debate. Something I doubt Obama will do before next November.

    On the other hand, we could shut down the European bases leaving the EU to burn on its own. They don’t like us anyway.

  2. steve says:

    Panetta has to lobby against this to maintain his credibility with the services as SecDef. That said, these are small cuts which actually need to be larger. We need to rethink our military priorities and budget accordingly. If the GOP does manage to roll this back, it supports the idea that the GOP is much more interested in cutting spending it does not like, rather than cutting spending or making government smaller as a principle.


  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I am so happy to see the fiscally conservative Republicans reining in that profligate spender Obama. Where would we be without them?

  4. de stijl says:

    House Vote:

    R – 177/96
    D – 95/95/3

    Senate Vote:

    R – 28/19
    D – 45/6
    I – 1/1

    The Republicans got most of what they wanted out of The Budget Control Act of 2011 – no tax increases and spending cuts greater than the debt limit increase. Of course when you threaten the US and world economy to get what you want, you kind of set the terms of the debate.

    The automatic triggers were intended to keep the supercommittee on the straight and narrow – Democrats would get cuts to non-Defense spending and Republicans would get cuts to Defense if they couldn’t come up with something they both could live with. There was a vote and it passed – with majority Republican support in both chambers

    They got the deal they wanted and now they want backsies?

    A lesser person might be tempted to say FOAD.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    @de stijl:

    So, 64% of Republicans voted for it and 58% of Democrats? I’m not sure that tells me much.

  6. de stijl says:

    @PD Shaw:

    What it tells us is that the Republicans voted for it and now they won’t accept the consequences.

  7. Fog says:

    Someone in the defense establishment needs to explain why a country with no military threats on its borders needs to spend as much on defense as most of the world put together. Cui bono?

  8. @de stijl:

    As I noted in the post, I think you’ll find as this goes on that there’s a divide on Capitol Hill among GOPers on this issue, which is the primary reason why I don’t think any repeal effort will pass.

  9. george says:

    Someone in the defense establishment needs to explain why a country with no military threats on its borders needs to spend as much on defense as most of the world put together. Cui bono?

    Basically, because the defense establishment is a huge fan of big government (and the military is definitely part of the government, and will be until their funding comes from private sources). There are a lot of people making a lot of money at tax payers expense in the defense industry, and they see no reason to stop doing so just because there are no credible threats to justify the level of tax dollars going their way.

    The Republicans and the Democrats disagree (even internally) on what kind of big government they want, but both fight tooth and nail against reductions to their “favorite” parts of the gov’t.

  10. Hey Norm says:

    Republican = Fiscal Fraud
    Basic math.

  11. john personna says:

    The Republicans have no shame. That’s what’s astonishing. We are on their game plan, and now it’s not fair. They want, as de stijl says, backsies, a do-over.

    (The original GOP game plan was probably that the supercomittee would fail, and then the looming 2013 cuts would be THE big election issue for 2012. They apparently can’t stomach that now. Maybe because they fear a less successful 2012 election cycle?)

  12. de stijl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Your greatly underestimate the Republicans’ proclivity to fear monger and demagogue national security issues for their electoral advantage.

    The repeal effort may not pass, but with the veto threat, they will be undoubtedly tempted to introduce legislation to repeal the Defense cuts (esp. in the House) in order to paint Obama and the Democrats as the modern day equivalent of Vidkun Quisling, Benedict Arnold and Neville Chamberlain.

    The likelihood of campaign ads in this vein are roughly 100%.

  13. Ben says:

    Interesting how the Republicans are now openly admitting that the entire debt-ceiling deal last year was intended as a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose charade. They got 90% of what they wanted out of the deal, and now they’re going to renege on the 10% of the deal that the spineless Dems actually got. I find it amazing how the Republicans can accuse liberals of a sense of entitlement, when they themselves feel they are entitled to follow only the parts of the deal that they want. The cognitive dissonance is boggling.

  14. Liberty60 says:

    The only Dem counterattack to this is to make the Bush tax cuts the central issue of the deficit hysteria.

    Well, that and endlessly playing videos of the Republicans wanting to gut Social Security and Medicare.

  15. Jr says:

    Obama has been playing chess, while the GOP is playing connect four. He literally holds all the cards in all this, budget cuts are going to happen no matter what. And on top of that he will get the revenue he wanted with the Bush tax cuts expiring.

  16. ponce says:

    That total figure drops slightly to $670 billion in the 2012 budget proposal.

    Plus the hundreds of billions of dollars of defense spending each year that comes from the budgets of other government departs like the Veteran’s Administration, Homeland Security, NASA, the Department of Energy, the State Department, etc., etc.

  17. waltm says:

    lets see what happens when defense cuts lead to the lay offs of unionized civilian DoD employees, decreased research grants to universities, defense plants close, etc. should be entertaining

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @de stijl:

    in order to paint Obama and the Democrats as the modern day equivalent of Vidkun Quisling, Benedict Arnold and Neville Chamberlain.

    The likelihood of campaign ads in this vein are roughly 100%.

    The reply ad writes itself: Osama Bin Laden’s head for 20 sec, no audio, the next 5 secs a scene of someone being buried at sea, the last 5 secs just the endless ocean rolling off to the horizon.

    If the GOP wants to play at foreign policy, they will lose.

  19. Liberty60 says:

    @waltm: My friend, you need to do some reading over at RedState.

    It has been conclusively proven that government spending does NOT create jobs, and cuts in government spending do NOT cause layoffs.

    Once the Confidence Fairy hears word of the reduced government spending, why, the magic of the Private Sector will burst forth a gushing fountain of jobs.

  20. @waltm:

    unionized civilian DoD employees

    DoD civilians aren’t unionized.

  21. george says:


    It has been conclusively proven that government spending does NOT create jobs, and cuts in government spending do NOT cause layoffs.

    Once the Confidence Fairy hears word of the reduced government spending, why, the magic of the Private Sector will burst forth a gushing fountain of jobs.

    That would be consistent with the GOP position. It’d be interesting to see if they follow it. For the most part they’re pretty inconsistent in applying their economic beliefs to the military (everything from their opinion of civil servants – which soldiers are, to their dislike of big government – and the military is one of the biggest government departments).

  22. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Liberty60: It has been conclusively proven that Democraticgovernment spending does NOT create jobs, and Republicancuts in government spending do NOT cause layoffs.

    Fixed if for you. Once Red State realizes that cuts may impact weapons programs, they will realize that government spending on National defense and employment are inextricably linked.

    Another successful conversion to the ranks of deficit spending as a boon to economic growth!