Defense and the Debt Ceiling
Serious questions remain about the national-security implications of the proposed deal to raise the Federal debt ceiling. With Members of Congress essentially being asked to vote immediately to avoid defaulting on the national debt, they are also entitled to immediate and compelling answers to the defense-related questions.
For FY 2012 and 2013, cuts in defense spending remain uncertain, with reductions as much as three percent below last year’s level still possible. Depending on the outcome of further negotiations over the size and allocation of those reductions, these cuts alone may well be quite harmful. The best that can be said is that, for these fiscal years, the issue is still unresolved.
Over the longer term, the outlook is almost certainly much more disturbing. In the deal’s second stage, the yet-to-be-named Congressional Joint Commission will have wide discretion on what to agree on, but if no agreement or only partial agreement is reached, the deal’s sequestration mechanism will be triggered. Broadly speaking, if that happens, defense spending will bear fifty percent of the total cuts, with non-defense spending bearing the remaining fifty percent, up to the amount necessary to raise the debt ceiling by the minimum $ 2.4 trillion required by the deal. This approach risks grave damage to our national security.
There is no strategic rationale whatsoever for cuts of this magnitude. There is, in fact, every strategic rationale to the contrary. While the appropriations process may still be able to decide which specific programs will be cut, this is no consolation. Cuts of this size are effectively indiscriminate.
Defense spending is not just another wasteful government program. Subjecting it to potentially massive, debilitating cuts is rolling the dice in perilous times internationally. Adam Smith himself wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “the first duty of the sovereign” is “protecting the society from the violence and invasion” of others.
Advocates of the deal place their reliance on the Joint Committee established by the agreement to prevent massive defense cuts. This means that the Republicans selected for membership on this Committee have the future security of this country resting on their shoulders. We can only hope that the leadership chooses representatives who understand the enormity of that responsibility.
Deal supporters argue in the alternative that the trigger mechanism, which would come into play if the Joint Committee could not reach agreement on the second tranche of spending cuts (or tax increases), need not be feared. They rest this assertion on three points.
First, they say, “Even if the committee failed to produce a single dollar in savings, Defense would be on the hook for less than $500 billion over nine years, beginning in 2013.” Unquestionably, however, cuts at this level would be catastrophic. They may not be at the $ 900 billion level of the Reid Plan, but they are debilitating nonetheless. If that is the best argument the deal’s advocates have, we are in deep trouble.
Second, proponents of the deal argue that out-year defense cuts can be reversed by subsequent Congresses. Of course, the Democrats will argue precisely the same point in favoring their domestic programs, suggesting that the entire second-stage exercise is a sham. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for, but it will mean a debt-ceiling increase in the second-stage without certainty about offsetting spending cuts.
Third, deal advocates say that “the point of the ‘backstop’ is that it never, ever happens.” Unfortunately, every prospect is that the Joint Committee will allocate cuts 50 percent to defense, 50 percent to non-defence. Why should Democrats agree to their favored domestic spending bearing more than 50 percent of the cuts when they know the sequestration mechanism will give them a better deal? Conversely, why should Republicans agree to more than 50 percent of the cuts being taken in defense, when they know precisely the same thing on their side?
Thus, the logic of the negotiating dynamic will mean that both sides of the Joint Committee will not concede more than they would otherwise get under the sequestration formula. That, in turn, brings us back to $ 500 billion in defense cuts.
This deal may be the best we can get, and in many respects it is far better than we feared. But to have accomplished so much, and fended off so many harmful proposals, to stumble at the last hurdle is a great tragedy. Make no mistake, this deal, by risking massive defense cutbacks, potentially points a dagger at the heart of our national security.