The debt ceiling bargain’s Doomsday Device

The White House tried to make clear on Monday that it considers a potential second set of defense budget cuts to be an alternative to avoid, not a preferred fallback, as Congress seeks more spending reductions.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney offered a slim ray of hope for the military-industrial complex on Monday as Washington scrambled to try to enact this weekend’s debt ceiling bargain: Although the deal involves $350 billion in Pentagon spending reductions over the next decade, the White House and congressional negotiators do not support the potential $500 billion second round of cuts, which would be triggered by a dead-man’s switch if Congress cannot approve some alternative. So the new “Super Congress” panel could call for additional DoD budget reductions, but they might amount to peanuts compared to a net total of $850 billion. The idea was to pick a number so high that everyone involved would have an incentive to avoid it, Carney said — not one that would be an acceptable fallback in case there was no deal.

Here was how the exchange went down:

REPORTER:  Jay, when people talk about the trigger and the automatic spending cuts, it seems to be portrayed as the Democrats won’t want to risk deep cuts to entitlements; Republicans won’t want to risk deep cuts to the Pentagon budget, but don’t deep cuts to the Pentagon budget also threaten the administration?

CARNEY:  We are not in support of cuts of that size. The President laid out in his framework his belief that working with then Secretary Gates and now Secretary Panetta that we can identify a further $400 billion over 12 years in reductions in defense spending.  And we achieved pretty much that, something on the order of that in this first round of firewalled discretionary spending cuts. So you’re right — I mean, this is not — let’s make clear that the President, as Commander-in-Chief and the way he views defense spending, does not support — would not support these kinds of cuts envisioned in the triggering mechanism either, but this is the point.  I mean, none of these outcomes are positive, and that is why they are to be avoided and why we believe Congress will avoid them and act through the joint committee.

REPORTER:   But were you to have these automatic cuts in military spending, would it impede the nation’s ability to wind down Iraq, to slowly wind down Afghanistan, to maintain its involvement in Libya?  Would all of these various national undertakings be called into question if you suddenly face the prospect of deep —

CARNEY:  Well, there are a lot of ifs, and I think as a point made earlier by Carol, the fact is, is that those cuts would not begin until 2013, if that trigger went off, was pulled.  And I think that, as you know, we are withdrawing all of our forces from Iraq, and we are already engaged in the drawdown of our surge forces in Afghanistan. So having said that, I’ll go back to my first point, which is that the President does not — has not called for and would not support these kinds of cuts in defense spending.  He believes that that opinion will be shared broadly by members of Congress, and that for that reason we will not get there.  This trigger will not be pulled, and therefore, we will achieve significant deficit reduction in a more balanced way.

This brings to mind the scene in “Dr. Strangelove” in which the eponymous doctor upbraids the Soviet ambassador for not revealing the existence of the Doomsday Device, which was supposed to deter a nuclear war by ending life on Earth no matter who attacked first. But the movie’s rogue American nuclear first strike takes place before the Soviets have announced it, ruining the whole effect.

The White House clearly views the budget cuts that would be triggered by the dead-man’s switch as a doomsday device, a  worst-case scenario, and it wants to jump-start the negotiations of the Super Congress by making clear that no one wants them to fail. One can only imagine the pressure that will be coming from the defense industry to try to keep this trap from springing.