House Armed Services Committee to Lead Crusade Against Defense Cuts
Defense hawks on Capitol Hill are loading their rhetorical guns as they prepare to battle cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.
Leading the charge is House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who said he plans to thwart any attempt by the deficit-reduction “super committee” to cut defense spending beyond what already was agreed upon in August in the Budget Control Act.
McKeon and others who oppose cuts to defense contend that therules that govern the super committee inevitably will result in the military bearing the brunt of debt-reduction efforts. They want to see the Pentagon spared, and for cuts to come from health and social programs.
Pro-defense lawmakers from both parties had hoped that by now the Pentagon would have delivered a much-anticipated strategic review that would set priorities to guide spending decisions. But no such review is yet available, and the super committee has to make funding recommendations by mid-October. That strategic vacuum may now be filled by the HASC, McKeon said Sept. 12 at an American Enterprise Institute forum.
HASC members this week will begin to “focus on the numbers” and assess the impact that further budget cuts could have on national security, said McKeon.
The absence of a Pentagon strategy, which former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said would be completed by August, is significant because it says to Congress that the Defense Department is content with leaving spending decisions up to the political process. If the super committee fails to agree to a comprehensive plan of spending cuts and revenues that reduces the national debt by $1.2 trillion, there would be across-the-board budget reductions, and half would come from defense. These automatic “sequester” cuts would be implemented beginning in 2013.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullenpredicted the current scenario in late July when he told reporters that the “budget train” is moving faster than the Pentagon’s strategic review.
McKeon is so determined to protect defense spending that he even took shots at the fiscal hawks of the Tea Party. Many of the 87 House freshmen from the Tea Party, set on slashing the national debt, are at odds with fellow Republicans such as McKeon, who only want to cut non-defense spending. But at least 13 tea partiers — those on the HASC — already have been dissuaded from supporting cuts to defense, McKeon said. “They now feel that we cannot sustain any further cuts” to the military, he said.
But can he convince the entire House to take that stand? “I hope the House leadership will support my commitment,” McKeon said. He added that it will be up to the HASC to educate Republican House leaders so that they become aware of the implications of reducing military spending. Would he ever vote to increase taxes to pay for defense? “If I only had two choices: raise taxes or cut defense, I would strengthen defense,” said McKeon.
It is too early to predict whether McKeon’s hardline approach will be successful. But the absence of a roles-and-missions review so far is providing a convenient cover to the defense hawks. By arguing that no cuts should be made until the Pentagon delivers a comprehensive strategy, GOP lawmakers can freely unleash their talking points about defense cuts “gutting” the U.S. military. They also get to tap into Democrats’ fears that if they support military budget cuts, they will be smeared as weak on national defense.
On the Senate side, McKeon’s stance is being bolstered by defense hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Graham said last week that any cuts beyond the nearly $500 billion mandated by the Budget Control Act would be “unacceptable.” He said lawmakers are willing to go along with “sensible reforms” such as eliminating waste in weapon procurement programs and even reducing heath care benefits for retirees. But any attempt to make across-the-board cuts to defense will be a deal-breaker, because it would send a message to the world that the United States views national defense as a “secondary concern” that ranks below social programs, Graham said.
Kyl stated that all $1.5 trillion in savings should come from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The hyperpartisanship that has taken over the defense budget is likely to help the Pentagon, analysts said. Any legislator who may be considering sensible tradeoffs between defense spending and deficit reduction is left rather hopeless because there is no framework — aka national strategy — against which to make rational decisions.
Despite the risk of big budget cuts if the sequester option is enforced, the Pentagon at this point has no real incentive to speed up the strategic review because that would be the equivalent of showing its cards. If a program is deemed expendable by the Pentagon, that makes it politically easier to cut it.
Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University and a former White House budget official overseeing national security, has said that the Pentagon’s budget of $700 billion could be safely trimmed over the coming years by as much as 15 percent without in any way jeopardizing U.S. military dominance. A comprehensive strategy would be desirable, but even in the absence of one, he said, it is clear that too much of the defense budget pays for unnecessary programs, irrelevant missions and bloated bureaucracies that don’t contribute to the nation’s security.
Former Republican senator from Missouri James Talent, a defense industry adviser who opposes cuts to the Pentagon budget, told the House Budget Committee that the absence of “strategic clarity” is getting in the way of a cohesive plan to tackle the debt. “The lack of direction from the highest level of civilian authority since the Cold War ended through now, almost four presidents, is extremely frustrating,” Talent told the panel during a July hearing.
Polarized views about how to tackle defense spending and the political stalemate in Washington could result in the outcome that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he feared the most: Math wins over strategy.