Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”
This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.
President Obama’s defense secretary, noted budget hawk Leon Panetta, has said that sequestration would be a “disaster” with “a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.”
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make any cuts in defense. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has some good suggestions in the Wall Street Journal for cutting bloated headquarters, eliminating unneeded bases, making military medical benefits less generous, and paring back the civilian workforce. But significantly she attaches no price tag to the reductions she seeks. The likelihood is that all of her savings, even if enacted, would not make a significant dent in the defense budget given that our military capabilities must grow to deal with threats from Africa to China. In any case sequestration is a mindless process of across-the-board hacking that will do major damage to vital programs; it is the very antithesis of the kind of rational pruning and rebalancing that Fluornoy suggests.
Now to the politics: In the last election, there was evidence that Republicans had lost their decades-old advantage on foreign policy and national security to a party led by the president who ordered the Osama bin Laden raid. How on earth will Republicans ever regain their advantage on these crucial issues if they come out as more anti-defense than Obama’s own defense secretary on the issue of sequestration?
I sympathize with the concerns of House Republicans about runaway spending. The growing public debt is a major concern that if left unaddressed could hamper American productivity and power in the long term. But the way to deal with this issue isn’t to whack away at the defense budget, which even if entirely eliminated would still not close our staggering, trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform, like it or not. President Obama’s opposition may make that impossible in the short-term but eviscerating our defense capabilities–and thereby making the world a more dangerous place–isn’t a viable alternative.