The deep cuts in defense spending envisioned in the just-announced debt ceiling deal raise a fundamental question for Americans: Will we let a deal stand that promises to end American security as we know it? Or will we demand that the deal, born of crisis-driven politics in Washington, be abandoned because of what’s at stake?
The deal promises to raise the debt ceiling by the highest amount ever—more than $2 trillion—while reducing spending by close to $1 trillion over the next decade. It envisions 6 percent and 7.5 percent cuts in defense spending from the President’s budget request in February for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, respectively. It sets a non-binding goal of $1.5 trillion worth of deficit reduction for the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which the legislation creates.
If Congress does not enact a sufficient deficit-reduction plan by this December, the deal calls for an automatic sequestration that would authorize making half of the cuts just in security spending, with the bulk coming out of the Department of Defense. Thus a single federal agency—one that is actually doing a good job and serving a constitutionally mandated role—will have to bear nearly the same amount of cuts as all the remaining domestic agencies combined, including Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Interior, Energy, Justice, and Labor.
As if that were not enough, there are no automatic cuts in entitlement benefits. We will have to sacrifice the future security of all Americans without actually getting at the cause of the debt crisis—namely, runaway spending on Social Security and the other big social entitlements.
In the end, it is hard to see how this deal is sustainable. The Joint Select Committee theoretically is supposed to consider entitlement reductions, but sequestration applies only to discretionary spending. Knowing full well that the Republicans will not support tax increases and the Democrats will balk at entitlement cuts, the sequestration “trigger” is rigged to ensure that the sword will fall on the defense budget. If after careful review Congress concludes that such draconian defense or other cuts are not acceptable, the only choice at that point is to change the nature of the process and abandon the main elements of the deal. If that happens, then this entire deal will have been little more than a ruse to raise the debt ceiling without deep reductions.
This deal aside, Congress’s mission in the year ahead will be figuring out how to sustain robust defense spending so we can modernize the armed forces, meet the global commitment required to keep America safe, and reduce the strain on an overworked force.