|Defend Defense; Win Political Battle|
By Quin Hillyer
Thursday, January 10 2013
If they want to succeed in policy and politics any time soon, conservatives/Republicans must adopt significant new strategies and tactics. But the first legislative step they can take in the House, one worthwhile both in substance and in terms of setting themselves up tactically for coming battles, is so remarkably easy that it can be accomplished in a bill requiring as little as a single sentence.
Here: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, including section 251A of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, the president in 2013 shall not order or implement sequestration for the security category of the federal discretionary budget.”
In short: Exempt national defense from automatic, across-the-board cuts otherwise slated to occur March 1.
This is not to say that Congress should not look to the Department of Defense (and other national security functions) for any savings. It is to say that no meat cleaver should be applied to defense – which, unlike domestic discretionary spending, already has been going down rather than up in recent years.
Before explaining how this proposal would affect the larger, political-strategic picture, let’s look at the numbers. Pre-Iraq surge, budget authority for defense in 2006 was $556 billion, while domestic discretionary spending was $440 billion. Considering that the latter category already had increased by 71 percent (or, even after inflation, by nearly 39 percent) from its Clinton-approved $257 billion in 1998, this seems like a reasonably generous (or liberal) point of comparison.
Now, under budget caps as they stand for Fiscal Year 2014 (which is next full budget Congress is supposed to consider), defense spending again will be down to $558 billion – almost exactly to pre-surge levels, and well over a 15 percent cut after taking inflation into account. But domestic spending is slated to rise to $549 billion in 2014 – a $109 billion hike from 2006, or nearly an 8 percent boost post-inflation.
That’s why automatic cuts from domestic spending, which have risen 8 percent, make more sense than automatic cuts from defense, which already will have fallen by 15 percent (and by much more compared to the Surge years).
Worse, our defense forces even before that had borne the brunt of massive reductions since the Cold War. The number of Navy ships has been halved, from 571 to 282. Active duty military personnel have dropped from more than two million in 1990 to less than 1.5 million today, even as we face worldwide terrorist threats much worse than two decades ago. The Air Force in particular, despite its crucial ability for rapid force projection, has cut its manpower by an astonishing 40 percent.
The administration can’t argue otherwise. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on record numerous times saying cuts of sequestration’s magnitude would be an absolute “disaster” for our national security.
The House’s public argument to Obama would be: “Look, we disagree on domestic spending, but your administration agrees with us against defense sequestration, so let’s get that problem off the table.” What could be more reasonable than that, to avoid part of the brinksmanship that the public so despises? If Obama refuses, he automatically looks like the obstinately irrational one – especially for an area of spending the public tends to favor, and especially if individual congressmen and media also highlight how many defense-related civilian jobs will be lost, location by location, if defense suffers sequestration.
If Obama demands that the unrealized, would-be savings be “paid for,” conservatives would have several options. The first would be to repeal a slew of the just-enacted special-interest tax breaks that Obama insisted be included in the fiscal-cliff deal. Let Obama defend a special break for Hollywood. Let him argue that bird-killing wind farms, Puerto Rican rum, GE’s tax dodge on overseas income, etcetera, are all more important than keeping our servicemen well paid and equipped.
The second option would be to adopt columnist Deroy Murdock’s suggestion of a 7 percent “welcome home” tax for American companies that bring home profits now being held overseas to avoid the U.S. 35 percent corporate rate. And other options abound – not to offer as part of the clean, original proposal, but only in answer to the obvious Obama rejoinder about needing to find the “savings” elsewhere.
Conservatives in recent years have seemed bizarrely incapable of using policy specifics in populist ways that bolster their major initiatives; when they do, as when they targeted the “bridge to nowhere” as a mean of highlighting the idiocies of earmarks, conservatives can win. A little prep work along these lines for the next chess move, after the policy-wise and politically clever opening gambit of removing defense from sequestration, would certainly put conservatives in a better position to fight the long-term war for a limited government protected by a lean but strong defense.
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