Lawmakers, defense sector have diverging views on debt law’s effect

The compromise debt-ceiling plan has injected some certainty into the defense sector, but with a twist: Just what is certain depends on whom you ask.

Reaction to the proposed Pentagon cuts included in the debt plan ran the gamut from muted praise to fearful warnings to cool indifference, showcasing the widely divergent views within the defense sector about what the Budget Control Act of 2011 has in store.

The sound and fury came in reaction to the debt-ceiling law’s provisions to cap spending in 2012 and 2013 at the Pentagon, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs Department and others at $684 billion, about $4.5 billion below the enacted 2011 amount. The law also sets up “triggers” for about $600 billion more in cuts to those agencies if a joint committee of House and Senate members fails to reach an accord on more deficit cuts.

The trigger provisions did not sit well with pro-defense stalwarts in either chamber, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDonald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing The Memo: Trump’s media game puts press on back foot Meghan McCain shreds Giuliani for calling Biden a 'mentally deficient idiot' MORE (R-Ariz.).

“Our senior military commanders have been unanimous in their concerns that deeper cuts could break the force,” McKeon said. “There is no scenario in the second phase of this proposal that does not turn a debt crisis into a national-security crisis.”

McCain said Tuesday that he is most concerned “not just about the enormous size of the potential reductions, but that the defense cuts being discussed have little to no strategic or military rationale to support them.”

Under the approach laid out in the debt-ceiling plan, McCain said, “they are essentially just numbers on a page.”

McKeon and McCain voted in favor of the debt bill.

Democratic members mostly supported the defense cuts, and some — including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) — called for even deeper military reductions. But others, like House Armed Services ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithDem congresswoman: Imprisoned asylum-seeking women have no idea where their children are Overnight Defense: Latest on scrapped Korea summit | North Korea still open to talks | Pentagon says no change in military posture | House passes 6B defense bill | Senate version advances House easily passes 7B defense authorization bill MORE (D-Wash.), said massive cuts to the defense budget would further damage the comatose U.S. economy.

“By focusing overwhelmingly on discretionary cuts, many of the important programs that have historically supported our robust middle class, built our economy and created opportunities for the next generation are made vulnerable,” Smith said in a statement. “Priorities such as scientific research, education, infrastructure, national security and many others may face over an additional $1 trillion in devastating cuts, which would do significant harm to our already struggling economy.”

Both Frank and Smith voted against the debt bill, which President Obama signed into law Tuesday afternoon.

Pentagon and national-security officials offered competing predictions of what the effect on the military would be.

“The proposed deal does not go far enough in reining in a military budget which in real terms is higher than at any time since World War II,” said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, a former assistant defense secretary. “In fact, the total reductions over the next decade are likely to be less than the $400 billion proposed by President Obama [in April].”

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld viewed things differently. 

“Even contemplating $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade is irresponsible & dangerous for our country,” Rumsfeld said in a Tuesday tweet.

So dire was the possibility of $600 billion worth of cuts between now and 2023 from an annual DOD budget that Marion Blakey, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, trotted out something that is increasingly rare in Washington: a reference to Roman antiquity to express the idea of an imminent threat.

Late Monday, Blakey said the debt-ceiling measure “dangles a Sword of Damocles over our national security later this year when further cuts would be triggered unless another compromise is reached.”

But Blakey didn’t stop there.

“The cuts to defense proposed in the ‘trigger’ deal are so draconian that it’s hard to believe they are even on the table,” she said. “National-security funding should not be treated as a piggy bank for deficit reduction, while the real drivers of our fiscal problems, such as entitlement spending, are off the table.”

Veterans of the national-security sector said the effect of the debt deal on the Pentagon would be minimal.

“The legislation is not going to survive in ways that have any real mid- or long-term impact,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon strategic planner now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This becomes clear the moment anyone examines the real-world nature of the supposed longer-term plans for defense cuts in the legislation.”

Cordesman knocked the plan for featuring “undefined dollars” and said it lacks political credibility. The envisioned cuts “are purely political numbers that do not reflect any analysis of national security needs, where the cuts would come from or the risk involved,” he added.

What does Cordesman make of the triggers that have pro-defense stalwarts on Capitol Hill and industry officials so fearful and angry?

“Absurd,” he said.