On Defense, Congressional Super Committee Has Its Work Cut Out for It
Photo of soldiers in Afghanistan by Getty Images.
In the theater that is Washington, the new version of an old debate about defense spending may seem like phony drama, but there are also real issues behind the arguments.
First the play-acting part. Congress and the Obama administration have now agreed on a round of cuts totaling about $350 billion to be taken out of programs in the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments. The debt-reduction plan passed earlier in the week also establishes a congressional “super committee” to come up with deeper cuts by a date certain. If that deadline is not met, automatic cuts (called “sequestering” in Washington-speak) would take place including another $500 billion or more for defense.
And it was this second round of possible cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said would seriously wound the military, families and American national security. But Panetta is a longtime veteran of Washington politics and gamesmanship, including years on Capitol Hill as a Senate aide and then a congressman from California, as well as being President Clinton’s chief of management and budget. He knows numbers and politics, and the politics of numbers.
So if these projected cuts are only a distant possibility, hinging on several contingencies that may or may not happen, why all the fuss?
Because, in the words of a former Reagan-era Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, now with liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, they have exposed some divisions in the Republican Party, going back to the days when the GOP was riven between those who put a priority on cutting spending, and for good measure, staying out of foreign squabbles, personified by the late Sen. Robert Taft. Another wing of the party was more internationalist. And that wing has since morphed into the activist, interventionist cluster of Republicans personified by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The latter was among the 26 Senate votes against the debt deal.
As Korb said, “a significant segment of the Republican party is willing to put defense on the table … and you take that plus the Democrats and you have more people willing to cut defense than in 2005 when the Republican Party had significant numbers of John Kyls and Lindsey Grahams and McCains rather than Ron Pauls.”
Another former Pentagon official, former Comptroller Dov Zakheim from the George W. Bush era, says that Democrats, Republicans, the administration and Congress all agree that a potential hostage situation is developing. The Democrats don’t want to hold domestic programs hostage to a potentially huge sequestering. Panetta and the administration don’t want to cut defense by another several hundred billion. That means the congressional super committee has to come up with cuts more palatable to both sides.
Both Korb and Zakheim see room for potential big cuts, but in different places. Korb thinks the Army and Marines can be brought down to pre-9/11 levels “if we have decided we are not going to invade and send large numbers of forces to the Middle East.”
Zakheim sees that leading to a possible worst-case scenario. “Yes, we pull back from East Asia and the Middle East and people come to terms with Iran and China, and if something happens, we can’t arrive immediately on the spot and so once we get there it’s much harder to deal with the situation.” The other concern, if the U.S. cuts too much, it could be caught short by North Korea, as it was in 1950 when the North invaded the South.
Both former officials agree there are potential but politically difficult programs to cut, for instance health care and pensions for working age military retirees, costing tens of billions, but all part of a package of sweeteners enacted over the years to encourage enlistments and retention in the all-volunteer force. There’s also the expanding payroll of civilian employees and contractors. Both Korb and Zakheim also acknowledge that none of the money being discussed now or in the future affects the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan that come under separate accounts.
But whether these cuts ever become real, a new round of Washington drama has been set up to run, involving executive branch officials, members of Congress and defense industry lobbyists debating and discussing what might happen while the United States continues to spend more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined.