WASHINGTON: As House Speaker John Boehner went to the White House for fruitless talks on sequestration, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon convened reporters to tell both the President and his own party leadership, “we are done cutting our defense.”
But the very fact that McKeon had to send this message via the media shows just how irrelevant the traditional Republican devotion to defense spending has become in the current fiscal crisis. To the extent anyone is in the loop on solving sequestration — and no one on either side is negotiating all that seriously — McKeon and the HASC are not.
The budget hawks have defeated the defense hawks. The real battle is between Barack Obama, who insists on raising tax revenues by closing “loopholes,” and GOP leaders, who say the $600 billion tax hike they already agreed to as part of a stopgap deal on Jan. 1st is all the ground they’ve going to give. A deal of any kind looks unlikely at this point, but one that spares the Pentagon entirely looks just plain impossible.
So while McKeon and his subcommittee chairmen touted the various bills they’ve introduced to undo the automatic defense cuts set to start at midnight — albeit without throwing their collective weight behind any one proposal — their most substantive statement was not about sequestration at all. Instead, it was about the separate and equal budget dysfunction called the Continuing Resolution. Since Congress has not yet passed a regular appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013, which began five months ago, the government has been operating under the CR, a stopgap that sets spending at 2012 levels with no flexibility to start new programs or to adjust, let alone end, the old ones. Both Army and Navy leadership have called the CR’s constraints just as damaging as sequestration.
That’s why this promise is a ray of light: “Next week, on the House floor, we’re going to vote on a defense appropriations bill that will last the rest of the fiscal year,” said McKeon’s soft-spoken vice-chairman, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry. “Now, that’s not going to undo sequestration,” he noted, but if passed into law, it would give the Pentagon much-needed maneuvering room.
McKeon suggested the defense spending bill would be wrapped up with a larger bill extending the CR for the rest of government. In other words, most agencies would have to continue on autopilot at 2012 spending levels, but the Pentagon would get a new funding level and, equally important, legal authority to start and stop programs. But it would be up to the House Appropriations Committee, not HASC, to determine those mechanics.
Ultimately, of course, the Senate and President Obama would have to agree with whatever the House passes. Obama did tell the press today that he’d be “supportive,” in principal, of some extension of the CR, if only to keep federal agencies operating, he said: “It’s the right thing to do to make sure we don’t have a government shutdown, and that’s preventable.” Whether he’d be comfortable singling out defense spending for special treatment is another question.
Legislative nuance was hardly the focus of today’s HASC press conference, however. The agenda was 99 percent “don’t cut defense” — which is going to be an uphill battle, and not just against the President.
“We are telling the President and John Boehner, when you walk out of that meeting this morning, don’t plan on cutting our national defense one more cent,” McKeon said in his opening remarks. Last night, previewing the press conference, a GOP staffer told Breaking Defense that “tomorrow is a message to our leadership and the President.”
Asked about fellow Republicans who think the sequestration cuts should go ahead, including on defense spending, McKeon essentially said they didn’t know what they were talking about and should defer to HASC. “We have had the opportunity to hear from the [service] chiefs, those that are on the battle line; we’ve had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan, to go to Iraq,” he said. “We have the greater knowledge of what the impact of these cuts will be on our national security.”
So McKeon and company are waging a two-front war, not just against the traditionally dovish Democrats but against their fellow Republicans, for many of whom the prospect of cutting federal spending is worth the pain even if half of those cuts come from defense. After all, that was the deal both parties agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which cut projected Pentagon spending and projected non-defense spending by about half a trillion each over ten years. The sequestration would double those figures.
In a way, McKeon’s even waging a three-front war, because history isn’t on McKeon’s side, either. Looking at prior post-war drawdowns — admittedly a tricky comparison because the war in Afghanistan is still going on — “the defense budget is going to come down, and it’s going to come down in the next ten years deeper than the $487 billion that [the BCA] took off the projected growth,” said Gordon Adams, a sometime Breaking Defense contributor who was a senior Office of Management and Budget official in the Clinton Administration, during a conference call this morning organized by the liberal National Security Network. “We’ll probably see something like a trillion dollars come off defense.”
From the Cold War peak in the 1980s to the low point in 1998, defense spending fell about 33 percent, added Todd Harrison, budget guru of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Since 2010, by contrast, defense spending has fallen by only 11 percent (counting both the base budget and wartime supplemental funding), and sequestration will add another 9 percent, a total of about a 20 percent cut. “This is relatively mild compared to some previous drawdowns in defense spending,” he said.
“Sequestration will create a mess, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a catastrophe,” Harrison went on. “It’s not the magnitude of the cuts that is the problem here; it’s the abruptness and lack of flexibility.”
“[It's] no way to run a railroad, let alone the world’s largest organization,” agreed Larry Korb, a former Reagan Pentagon official now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “[But] you can do it without really impacting our readiness to deal with the threats that we face.”
That’s a debatable point given the cutbacks the military has already announced, from not deploying the aircraft carrier USS Truman to reducing training for everyone from Air Force and Marine pilots to Army grunts. A proper defense appropriation, as McKeon and Thornberry promised today, would give the Pentagon more flexibility to soften those readiness blows, even if sequestration takes effect.
And the fact that sequestration will start at midnight doesn’t inevitably mean it will take full effect, since cuts will be implemented over the next seven months. That draws out the agony, but it also opens the possibility of undoing at least some of the damage.
“We’re not saying this is done. We’re going to keep after it,” Thornberry said as the HASC press conference closed. “We’ll keep looking for options.”
Less than an hour later, as the President wound up his own press conference, he struck a similar note about sequestration. “It will not be apocalypse,” Pres. Obama said. “It’s just dumb. [And] if Congress comes to its senses two months from now, three months from now, there’s a lot of running room.”