Like a novice driver ruining a manual transmission, Washington ground its gears to pieces this week, almost guaranteeing no real action on the major questions of the day until at least after the elections.
The House Armed Services Committee passed an authorization bill that adds billions to the Defense Department’s spending request from earlier this year, as well as keeps Navy ships, Air Force aircraft, and backs a new East Coast missile defense site, among many other things. Secretary Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Dempsey said Thursday that they oppose it, pointing out that Congress itself last year mandated that DoD must take its medicine as part of the effort to reduce the U.S. deficit.
“I understand Congress has the right to question our decisions and make changes, but Congress also has a responsibility to make sure we protect a strong national defense,” Panetta said. “The bottom line is we cannot cut a half a trillion dollars from the defense budget and not cause some pain.”
And that’s only the $487 some-odd billion in reduced spending growth that DoD had to accept upfront, not the $500 billion guillotine still poised over the Beltway. (More on that in a moment.) So the House’s plan, Panetta said, “is not balanced, it’s not fair and ultimately the Senate isn’t going to accept it either. All we’re going to head for now is more gridlock and that’s what bothers me.”
Just like last year, Washington appears headed for another crisis of process, in which dysfunctional or non-functional institutions’ inability to do anything could have dramatic ripple effects in the wider world. Last year, the U.S. lost its AAA credit rating for the first time. This year the impact may be smaller, but for the military-industrial-congressional complex, no less significant: The more it looks like the future of the national defense budget will come down to a photo finish in the closing hours of December’s lame duck session, the worse it could get in the interim.
The big defense contractors are threatening layoffs even before sequestration hits. The vice chiefs of the services renewed their worries about it for Senate lawmakers Thursday, warning that the Air Force could lose its ability to buy stealth aircraft and the Navy could lose key shipbuilding vendors forever. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd Austin warned sequestration would mean an additional 100,000 troops gone, over and above the 80,000 the service now plans to draw down. Of those additional 100,000, some 50,000 would be National Guardsmen and Reservists, he warned, hoping to tap the muscle the states have flexed this year.
The vice chiefs went on record, in response to questions from New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, as saying that they’d like Congress to resolve sequestration before December, though that and a token will get you uptown. No matter how the House acts, a racing tortoise could lap the Senate in the best of times, and this year with sequestration tied up with even larger questions about the Bush-era tax cuts, Medicare and all the rest of it, the picture does not look good for the defense industry or the Building.
Oh, and it gets worse: Even a stalwart defender of DoD’s budget, AEI’s superstar analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, penned a deeply pessimistic column this week about the medium-term prospects for congressional action during and after the lame duck. The only ray of light for anyone in Washington these days is that November’s elections will give one side or the other enough oomph to actually act, but Eaglen worries that won’t happen:
Removed from immediate electoral concerns, the thinking goes, Congress will be freed to act decisively, and the winning side in November will emerge with a clear mandate to avoid sequestration through their preferred method — the Democrats, by raising taxes and the Republicans, by cutting entitlements. But no side is likely to emerge with a clear mandate or large majority. All of the same fights and dug-in positions will still be the same after the election as they are today.
To be sure, her view isn’t universal — some people believe Congress can actually make a dent in its agenda, or at very least use its magic to push everything over into next year without a national meltdown. And to continue on an optimistic note for the defense game, whatever happens in Washington will likely be better than what voters themselves would do if they had direct control.
A poll out Thursday found that a sample of Americans would cut the defense budget by even more than the worst-case scenarios now contemplated in the capital. According to the Center for Public integrity, the Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center, “Not only does the public want deep cuts, it wants those cuts to encompass spending in virtually every military domain — air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defenses.”
According to the survey, in which respondents were told about the size of the budget as well as shown expert arguments for and against spending cuts, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats supported making immediate cuts — a position at odds with the leaderships of both political parties. The average total cut was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. These amounts both exceed a threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called “sequestration” legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike have claimed would be devastating.
“When Americans look at the amount of defense spending compared to spending on other programs, they see defense as the one that should take a substantial hit to reduce the deficit,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), and the lead developer of the survey. “Clearly the polarization that you are seeing on the floor of the Congress is not reflective of the American people.”
A broad disagreement with the Obama administration’s current spending approach — keeping the defense budget mostly level — was shared by 75 percent of men and 78 percent of women, all of whom instead backed immediate cuts. That view was also shared by at least 69 percent of every one of four age groups from 18 to 60 and older, although those aged 29 and below expressed much higher support, at 92 percent.
How much of that sentiment could actually translate into action before the end of the year? That will be up to voters.