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The Not-So-Super Committee

Touted as the “Super Committee” by pundits, the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee-created by the August 2 Debt Deal between President Barak Obama and the congressional Republicans-has turned out to be not so super.  The real super committees of Congress, the appropriations committees, are reasserting their control, and they are doing it with the defense budget, keeping it quite flush with money and unraveling a second round of debt reduction. 

Painful as it is to remember, the August Debt Deal-which got the country past the crisis provoked by the Republican’s refusal to allow an increase in the debt ceiling-requires the so-called Super Committee to find at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next ten years.  If the 12 congressional Republicans and Democrats on the committee fail to agree on those cuts, automatic reductions are supposed to take place: including $492 billion in the defense budget and over $400 billion elsewhere, according to the Congressional Budget Office (athttp://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=124140).  Either, the Super Committee will cut a deal, or the defense budget gets whacked. 

It is not going to happen that way.  

First, the Supercommittee is bound to fail; it will reach no meaningful budget agreement. 

Second, when the committee fails, the defense cuts envisioned by the supposedly automatic trigger mechanism will not occur.  That will be for the simple reason that almost no one wants that to happen.  While they are quite mistaken about the consequences, almost everyone on Capitol Hill (and in the Pentagon) think that those defense reductions will be “devastating,” “disastrous,” “doomsday,” and any other Apocalyptic term you can think of.  In short, the Debt Deal took a hostage that no one wants to shoot.  

In the 31 years I worked on Capitol Hill, I came to know several others with as much, or more, experience as I in understanding how the place operates.  Not one of the Hill veterans I have heard from believes the Debt Deal and the Super Committee are headed for anything but failure.  The Deal and the Committee were designed only to kick the can down the road to get us past last summer’s crisis-with the inevitable result of provoking others. 

The meetings held thus far by the Super Committee have made obvious its inevitable breakdown.  Hearing this week with from the Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf (who conducted himself with professionalism and grace), the congressional members demonstrated precisely why the vast majority of Americans hold them in contempt.    

The committee started out by insisting that it hear not from Elmendorf but from itself.  The national audience was dragged through more than an hour of supremely self-involved Republicans and Democrats explain how the other side caused everything and their own prescriptions were the only pill to take.  When Elmendorf tried to provide a framework for addressing the issues, they simply repeated themselves. 

 

Consisting mostly of second stringers on budget issues and leadership errand boys (and a female) from their party caucuses, that bunch will find a $1.2 trillion budget solution sometime after pigs fly and shrimps whistle.

 

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the real budget action on Capitol Hill was occurring.  The Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee met on Tuesday, in private, to decide on the 2012 Department of Defense Appropriations bill. It funds most, but not all, of the Pentagon’s budget.  The Subcommittee took cognizance of one of the provisions of the Debt Deal, but not any parts that had to do with the Supercommittee and the automatic cuts. 

 

In addition to the Super Committee and the trigger mechanism, the Debt Deal imposed-without any further palaver required-an initial phase of reductions on appropriations for the next ten years totaling over $900 billion.  While the precise budget obligation on the Pentagon in this first phase has not been entirely clear, most are now interpreting it to mean a $350 billion reduction.  In effect, that means that the Pentagon budget would be frozen at its current, fiscal year 2011 level-precisely the level set by the Appropriations Committee’s bill. 

 

It safely can be predicted this will be the level of Pentagon spending the entire Congress endorses for 20012, after theatrical grumbling by some Republicans about the bill’s spending being $26 billion less than Obama’s now meaningless budget request from last February.    

Even at the 2011 level, the bill is extremely generous.  The amount-about $529 billion after separate Military Construction and some other pieces are added-will be almost as much “base” spending that the Pentagon has seen in any single year for decades.  If you add the separate funding for the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere ($118 billion), the amount is quite close to the Pentagon’s highest ever level since the end of World War Two-and it is well above previous secondary peaks attained in the Korean and Vietnamese Wars and Ronald Reagan’s fleeting zenith in 1985. 

That “frozen” 2011 level will be also more than twice the defense budgets of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Somalia-combined.  It will be more than $80 billion more than we spent, on average, during the Cold War when we faced a threatening and heavily armed Soviet Union and a hostile, dogmatically communist China. 

While the new DOD appropriations bill was described by its architect, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) as “not an easy allocation to meet” (committee press release is athttp://appropriations.senate.gov/news.cfm?method=news.view&id=33ad4f56-b0fc-45f8-8c5b-162b5eab4791), it is actually a defense budget quite flush with money.

Moreover, the bill has several gimmicks to permit higher spending than is apparent.  It includes a clumsy ploy of moving $6.5 billion out of the capped part of the Pentagon budget that the Debt Deal limited and adding the money back into the separate (un-capped) funding for the war in Afghanistan.  (This, of course, permitted the “base” bill to contain $6.5 billion more than otherwise.)   Also, as the details trickle out next week, we will find the usual ruses, including cuts for “revised economic assumptions,” “unobligated balances” and other phony games to pretend the Committee is reducing money (rather than deferring it) and making good government decisions (rather than taking capricious cuts in military readiness while protecting procurement-and contractors). (For a previous discussion of some of these tricks, see http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4673.) 

The bill is not a tough minded but moderate action to impose restraint on the Pentagon; it is an effort to protect Pentagon spending as much as possible.  With Robert Gates taking the lead and Leon Panetta bobble-heading in agreement, the Pentagon has resolved itself to that first phase of $350 billion in cuts over ten years.  They are not happy about it, but they will live with it in order to fend off further reductions.  The Senate Appropriations Committee leadership is in deep sympathy with that sentiment.  

Filled with bunkum to seem to be cutting at least moderately but actually rescuing unaffordable, underperforming flotsam like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee is a rear guard budget protection action.  

The gambit will be successful.  The defenders of big defense spending have been extremely vocal. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA), is quoted almost every day about the cataclysm to occur if the defense budget is cut at all.  This kind of hysteria makes the assertions of Senator John Kyl (R-CO) almost seem to be the middle ground: he threatened to quit the Supercommittee if the DOD cuts go beyond the initial $350 billion. The response from Democrats and even Republicans who have previously favored more meaningful Pentagon cuts has sealed the deal: they have been completely silent. 

All that remains to be done is to let the Supercommittee proceed on its clear path to failure.  That will trigger the dreaded automatic cuts, but only nominally.  As designed, those cuts would not occur until 2013.  The big defense spender types will have all of 2012 to trash any opponents who dare to speak in favor of allowing them.  They will use their traditional slander that to be against bloat in the defense budget is to be “anti-defense.”  It has always worked in the past, especially with Democrats who want to posture themselves as moderate, such as candidate Obama. 

The Debt Deal will be rewritten; the defense budget will be “saved,” and the next budget crisis will be made both inevitable and worse. We have a lot more dysfunction in Congress and the White House yet to observe.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

 

 

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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