The threat of $500 billion in future defense cuts codified in the new deficit-reduction law could sharpen a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over national security as the 2012 campaign intensifies.
President Barack Obama and congressional Republican leaders designed the defense cuts -- as well as reductions in all other areas of government, including Medicare -- as a doomsday incentive to force Congress to enact a more targeted spending-cut package by year’s end.
For the Defense Department, cuts ranging from substantial reductions in the military’s 1.43 million-strong force to eliminating subsidies for the Pentagon’s chain of subsidized grocery stores would likely be on the table under the worst-case scenario. Regardless of whether they materialize, the potential cuts to the military have become a political weapon for both sides.
Republicans are painting Obama and Democrats as irresponsible and weak on defense for insisting they be included in the so-called “trigger” to compel enactment of a $1.5 trillion deficit-slashing measure.
“Can you imagine anything more irresponsible, for the commander in chief of the military to promote -- not just promote but insist -- on the knowing destruction of the U.S. military as a means to threaten Congress?” Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican, said yesterday before passage of the debt-reduction measure, which he supported.
Democrats say they will use the threat of automatic defense cuts to prod Republicans to accept tax increases as part of the $1.5 trillion debt-reduction deal -- or charge they would rather protect the rich than the military.
“In the coming months, our Republican colleagues will be given the following test: Will they choose to protect special-interest tax breaks over investments necessary to keep our nation strong and secure?,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee and former head of the party’s House campaign arm. “Let’s get on with that big national debate.”
The debate would intensify next year -- just as the 2012 campaign is heating up -- should Congress fail to enact a deficit-cutting measure by Christmas. Under the law, the automatic cuts would kick in beginning in 2013 should Congress fail to produce such a package that a special committee is supposed to recommend.
In a message to defense personnel yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the $500 billion in threatened automatic cuts over a decade starting in 2013 “would be completely unacceptable” and may do “real damage.” The reduction is meant to be “unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction,” he said.
Reducing troop strength would offer the biggest cost savings, yielding about $1 billion annually for every 10,000 in military personnel cut, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington and a former budget official in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Several panels and commissions that have examined ways to reduce U.S. deficits have proposed a menu of new weapons that could be eliminated. As the largest of the Pentagon’s weapons programs with an estimated cost of $382 billion, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been in the crosshairs of several such studies.
Former Senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, and former Clinton administration White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, co-chairmen of a deficit-reduction commission that Obama created last year, proposed eliminating the Marine Corps version of the F-35 jet to save as much as $27.1 billion.
They also suggested the Army forgo a new fleet of trucks and stop buying digital radios to save $2.3 billion.
General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the Pentagon is reviewing its need for 11 aircraft carriers.
The hunt for cuts may reach beyond troops and weapons to some of the perks military families enjoy.
Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, in his July report “Back in Black” highlighted an earlier assessment by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that eliminating U.S. subsidies for the Defense Commissary Agency, which operates 252 grocery stores around the world, could save about $9.1 billion.
The prospect of such cuts and the outcry they would spark could be a strong motivator for compromise, say strategists in both parties.
“It’s smart because it pushes the sides together; that’s what its designed to do,” said Republican strategist John Ullyot, a former spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That’s really going to make at least the Republicans” on the special committee “come to the middle as much as they can.”
Still, should stalemate prevail and the cuts go forward as threatened, Republicans would have a potent political argument to use against Obama and Democrats, Ullyot said.
“Obama has full ownership of this in the presidential race, and there’s going to be some unpopular cuts,” Ullyot said. “It will be much easier for the Republican candidates to be on the outside throwing rocks inward, as opposed to having to defend these harmful cuts. It will become a big campaign issue.”
Republican presidential candidates already have begun hitting Obama on the issue. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said as president he would never have agreed to a measure that “opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.”
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said even worse than what she views as paltry spending cuts in the debt measure was “that this deal puts our national security at risk because of the severe cuts to defense that kick in should the president not do his job in the next few months.” She was one of 66 House Republicans who voted against the accord on Aug. 1.
In a statement, she said it was difficult for Obama “to understand the importance of national security.”
Still, Democrats argue that Republicans also face political risks over the threatened defense cuts. Centrist Democrats -- those who are fiscally conservative and favor a strong national defense -- joined Republicans to push the debt measure through Congress, and they will challenge Republicans to help produce a deficit-reduction package both parties can accept, said Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Progressive Security Project.
“The extent to which Republicans are willing to sacrifice revenue increases specifically as a trade-off for defense cuts - - that’s going to be where the rubber meets the road,” Arkedis said.
Democrats have to push back against the notion that they are weak on security, which can be politically damaging, and argue instead that both reasonable defense cuts and revenue has to be part of a balanced deficit-reduction package, along with domestic spending reductions, he said.
“It would really behoove Democrats to get out front and win the message war on this because that’s typically where Democrats get left behind on defense,” Arkedis said.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who plays a major role in shaping the party’s message, said the prospect of “very, very, very deep” defense cuts should give Republicans a powerful incentive to compromise on deficit reduction.
“It holds sharp swords over the heads of both parties,” he said.
Kyl, a contender for appointment to the special committee, said he would “disregard” the threatened reductions while prodding his party to make them a campaign issue should Democrats try to force Republicans into accepting tax increases to stave them off.
“If anyone says to me, ‘Remember, the trigger is Armageddon for the U.S. military,’ my response will be, ‘Let’s take that debate to the American people and let them decide.’ ”