CommunityFDL Main Blog

Defense Cuts in Debt Limit Deal Less Than Meets the Eye

Army Emblem, Veterans Monument

Army Emblem, Veterans Monument by cobalt123

Among the silver linings in this deal, progressives are told, are that it makes real and thoroughgoing cuts to the defense budget. The Pentagon is supposed to be one of the big losers in the deal. This was the President’s unwavering vow, according to the obligatory Politico tick-tock. And yet, right in the middle of that, you find that the White House did actually waver.

But by 4 p.m. Sunday — two days before the country would plunge into default — President Barack Obama drew the line against congressional Republicans who wanted assurances that defense spending would be cut less than many other programs.

“We just can’t give there,” Vice President Joe Biden, Obama’s chief emissary to the Hill in the budget negotiations, pointedly told House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) […]

After more wrangling, McConnell suggested a solution to the impasse: Redefine “defense” cuts as “security” cuts to include homeland security, veterans affairs and foreign aid, diluting the impact on the Pentagon.

The president called Boehner at 8:15 p.m. to see if that was enough to win over House Republicans.

So instead of $350 billion cutting the Pentagon in the first round, you have $350 billion cutting “security.” And remember, the President’s budget already planned for $400 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next ten years. So defense did at least $50 billion better than expectations.

“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.” […]

Korb, who studies defense budgets, said Congress could cut the defense baseline budget by $100 billion annually over the next decade and still spend more than it did during the height of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. He noted that the baseline defense budget has climbed every year for 13 years, a record increase.

As William Hartung writes, the first-stage proposal would cut Pentagon budgets by less than 1%. Not to mention the fact that these kinds of cuts could be shifted to personnel in the form of health care and pensions for active duty military, not the weapons of war.

O-ho, but you say, the trigger of automatic cuts is very heavy on the Pentagon – up to $600 billion, to be exact. And unlike the “security” dodge, those cuts fall directly on DoD and any defense-related programs at agencies like the Department of Energy. But of course, that is a trigger that may not ever fire.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that the parties will not be able to come together in a SuperCongress joint committee to arrive at recommendations for deficit reduction that would
stave off the trigger. There’s reason to believe that Republicans would prefer the trigger to tax hikes, and that Democrats would prefer the trigger to cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. There’s reason to believe that joint committees like this don’t really work very well, historically.

And that’s probably my preference, to let the trigger fire at this point (though we’ll see what emerges from the Catfood Commission II). But I’m sure it would not be the preference of the White House. Consider that, if the trigger fired and the defense budget was trimmed to that level, the overall cuts would approach the level of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations. This was the one precise thing that the President said publicly in a news conference he didn’t like about Bowles-Simpson. I think there will be serious White House pressure to avoid the trigger.

And, even if the trigger does fire, that would only lead to a massive lobbying scrum between 2012 and 2013.

“If the committee deadlocks or they put something out that doesn’t pass Congress … before the [trigger] hit they could pass another package of equal savings,” said a White House official during a briefing on Sunday night. “So it puts pressure on people. The trigger is looming.” […]

But those triggers won’t be immediate. They will only come into place beginning in 2013, giving lawmakers and lobbyists a full year to try and push the committee’s package — or some alternative — into law.

In other words, the automatic cuts aren’t so automatic.

This won’t stop the hawks like Lindsey Graham from bleating about this deal, but you’ll be shocked to know that he’s crying crocodile tears.

Cato actually has a pretty good paper on this.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Defense Cuts in Debt Limit Deal Less Than Meets the Eye

Army Emblem, Veterans Monument

Army Emblem, Veterans Monument by cobalt123

Among the silver linings in this deal, progressives are told, are that it makes real and thoroughgoing cuts to the defense budget. The Pentagon is supposed to be one of the big losers in the deal. This was the President’s unwavering vow, according to the obligatory Politico tick-tock. And yet, right in the middle of that, you find that the White House did actually waver.

But by 4 p.m. Sunday — two days before the country would plunge into default — President Barack Obama drew the line against congressional Republicans who wanted assurances that defense spending would be cut less than many other programs.

“We just can’t give there,” Vice President Joe Biden, Obama’s chief emissary to the Hill in the budget negotiations, pointedly told House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) […]

After more wrangling, McConnell suggested a solution to the impasse: Redefine “defense” cuts as “security” cuts to include homeland security, veterans affairs and foreign aid, diluting the impact on the Pentagon.

The president called Boehner at 8:15 p.m. to see if that was enough to win over House Republicans.

So instead of $350 billion cutting the Pentagon in the first round, you have $350 billion cutting “security.” And remember, the President’s budget already planned for $400 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next ten years. So defense did at least $50 billion better than expectations.

“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.” […]

Korb, who studies defense budgets, said Congress could cut the defense baseline budget by $100 billion annually over the next decade and still spend more than it did during the height of the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. He noted that the baseline defense budget has climbed every year for 13 years, a record increase.

As William Hartung writes, the first-stage proposal would cut Pentagon budgets by less than 1%. Not to mention the fact that these kinds of cuts could be shifted to personnel in the form of health care and pensions for active duty military, not the weapons of war.

O-ho, but you say, the trigger of automatic cuts is very heavy on the Pentagon – up to $600 billion, to be exact. And unlike the “security” dodge, those cuts fall directly on DoD and any defense-related programs at agencies like the Department of Energy. But of course, that is a trigger that may not ever fire.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that the parties will not be able to come together in a SuperCongress joint committee to arrive at recommendations for deficit reduction that would
stave off the trigger. There’s reason to believe that Republicans would prefer the trigger to tax hikes, and that Democrats would prefer the trigger to cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. There’s reason to believe that joint committees like this don’t really work very well, historically.

And that’s probably my preference, to let the trigger fire at this point (though we’ll see what emerges from the Catfood Commission II). But I’m sure it would not be the preference of the White House. Consider that, if the trigger fired and the defense budget was trimmed to that level, the overall cuts would approach the level of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations. This was the one precise thing that the President said publicly in a news conference he didn’t like about Bowles-Simpson. I think there will be serious White House pressure to avoid the trigger.

And, even if the trigger does fire, that would only lead to a massive lobbying scrum between 2012 and 2013.

“If the committee deadlocks or they put something out that doesn’t pass Congress … before the [trigger] hit they could pass another package of equal savings,” said a White House official during a briefing on Sunday night. “So it puts pressure on people. The trigger is looming.” […]

But those triggers won’t be immediate. They will only come into place beginning in 2013, giving lawmakers and lobbyists a full year to try and push the committee’s package — or some alternative — into law.

In other words, the automatic cuts aren’t so automatic.

This won’t stop the hawks like Lindsey Graham from bleating about this deal, but you’ll be shocked to know that he’s crying crocodile tears.

Cato actually has a pretty good paper on this.

Previous post

States, Everyone in Them, Country Screwed By Debt Limit Deal, Fiscal Policy Path

Next post

Senate Debt Ceiling Watch Party — Part V

David Dayen

David Dayen