The Skeptics

GOP Won't Cut Defense Without Deal

The House Republican caucus took two steps this week that undercut the increasingly popular claim that deficit fears will drive it toward a more restrained stance on foreign commitments and Pentagon spending.

First, a rule set for a vote Tuesday instructs Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan to set non-security discretionary spending for the rest of fiscal year 2011 at 2008 levels. Second, the Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of caucus, Thursday announced plans to cut the same bucket of spending to 2006 levels.

Deficit hawks should be concerned by the exclusion of the nearly two thirds of discretionary spending (itself less than half of total spending) that go to security—defined by the Republicans as the wars, non-war defense, veterans, and homeland security. Their concern should not come from the resolution’s substance—it is symbolic—but from what it indicates about GOP politics.

Here’s the deal on substance. Most years, Congress funds the government through thirteen appropriations bill (excluding the mandatory programs like social security payouts that require no annual legislation). The budget committee sets the total appropriations amount, and appropriators allocate it among programs.

Congress never passed appropriations bills for this fiscal year, which began October 1. Instead they passed a series of continuing resolutions, keeping spending at fiscal year 2010 levels plus inflation. The latest continuing resolution runs out March 4, leaving the last six months of the fiscal year unfunded.

On its first day in power, the new Republican majority enacted new rules giving Ryan, as budget committee chair, unprecedented power to set spending levels for the rest of the year without a vote in committee or on the floor. The appropriators still control the movement of funds under that cap. The vote Tuesday does not affect that procedure. It is, as Humberto Sanchez reports for the National Journal, a show staged to juxtapose the biggest show in town: the State of the Union Address. The Republican Study Committee’s legislation is similar. It is meant to make a point, not to pass. And that’s fair enough; with Democrats running the Senate and the White House, House Republicans might as well be theatrical.

The politics here are more interesting. With GOP stalwarts like Tom Coburn recently coming out in favor of defense cuts and heavyweights like Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell saying that the Pentagon should be on the deficit reduction table, it seemed reasonable to hope that Republicans might include defense cuts in their own deficit reduction plans—albeit not the massive cuts I would like. Maybe the GOP will change its stripes on the fiscal year 2012 defense budget, which Congress has to deal with once the rest of 2011 is funded. But it seems more likely that the leadership will instead accept Secretary’s Gates proposal to merely slow defense spending growth and make support for real cuts a chit to trade the White House as part of a larger deficit reduction package. Meanwhile, watch for them to slip the some base defense spending into the war funding bill, allowing them to claim fiscal restraint while still bringing home the bacon to red districts.

If that’s the tact, it is obviously bad news for those of us hoping that deficits concern will encourage reconsideration of the notion that Americans can only be safe from the rest of the world by running it. Moderate Democrats, including the President, will remain chary of offering serious defense cuts absent some political cover from conservatives. That dynamic will limit the defense cuts included in any deficit reduction package.