Defense community raises concerns over supercommittee membership

The super-panel tasked with slashing the national deficit will likely lack a pro-military hardliner, but defense sources are placing their hopes in the inclusion of two senators and the prospect of a grand deal on entitlement reform.

With nine of the 12 supercommittee members now known, recommendations from pro-defense lawmakers and lobbying organizations have so far gone unheeded. Only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) has yet to name her selections, and the consensus in defense circles is the California liberal will not pick a hawk.

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At first glance, the panel’s membership appears to point to large Pentagon budget cuts. But congressional aides and defense insiders say there are reasons to believe that won’t happen.

Washington’s defense proponents had hoped that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would put a hawk on the supercommittee.

He did not, opting instead for Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) to serve on the panel. Hensarling will be one co-chairman.

There is not one pro-Pentagon hardliner in that group, but that does not mean Boehner is endorsing big military budget cuts, according to a senior House Armed Services Committee (HASC) majority aide.

“It appears this committee has been, as far as Speaker Boehner’s selections go, to take a hard look at entitlement spending,” the HASC majority aide told The Hill. “And that is entirely appropriate since there are no more savings possible in the DOD budget.”

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), HASC chairman, issued a statement commending Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on their choices for the supercommittee, and said committee members “have no easy choices ahead of them.”

“During negotiations over the Budget Control Act, I encouraged leadership to focus the joint committee on entitlement spending and also to include a strong defense voice,” McKeon said. “Members like Sen. [Jon] Kyl [R-Ariz.] understand well the dangers associated with further cuts to our military and the need to keep the faith with military retirees. I am also encouraged that the committee members are well-versed in entitlement programs. It is only through reform of this mandatory spending that we can find the savings we need. I will be the first to remind them that additional cuts to the military would come at an unacceptable cost to our national security.”

“The principal purpose of the supercommittee is to negotiate a broadly acceptable compromise on entitlement cuts, in exchange for targeted tax increases,” said Jim McAleese, the principal at consultancy McAleese & Associates. “Ironically, the more focused the supercommittee is on negotiating compromise on both entitlements and revenues, the more likely defense will be protected by default.”

That’s because the special panel could spend most of its time zeroed in on the difference between the cost of entitlement programs and federal receipts, McAleese said. That would leave little time to focus on “the $1.1 trillion federal discretionary budget, of which DOD comprises 50 percent,” he said.


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Wherever the special panel places its focus, pro-defense lawmakers, Pentagon officials and the industry want the group to agree on some kind of accord by Nov. 23.

That’s because a deadlocked special panel’s inability to strike a deal would set off a “trigger” in the debt-ceiling law signed Aug. 2 by President Obama requiring around $600 billion in defense and national security cuts over 10 years, on top of the $350 billion the law mandated over the same span.

Pentagon and industry officials say the $350 billion cut over a decade is achievable, but total cuts approaching $1 trillion would be devastating for military readiness and the defense industrial base.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week a $1 trillion cut to national security agencies — most of which would come out of the Pentagon’s budgetary hide — would be “dangerous.”

That’s why the defense caucus wanted one if its own on the committee — to block big panel-orchestrated DOD cuts while finding a way to get an agreement on other areas of federal spending.

In addition to Kyl, McConnell appointed Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a budget director in the George W. Bush administration, and Tea Party favorite Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appointed three liberal senators with close ties to leadership: Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.).

Although it did not get a hardliner, the defense caucus believes it might have gotten the next best thing in the appointments of Sens. Murray and Kyl, congressional and industry sources said Wednesday.

Murray was long a vocal advocate for Boeing’s entry into a decade-long Air Force aerial tanker contract, and is regarded highly in defense circles.

“There is strong appearance that Patty Murray was picked because she chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee,” McAleese said. “The upside is that she also is a fairly strong advocate for defense on the Senate Armed Services Defense subcommittee.”

Kyl is not regarded as being as hawkish as McKeon, and senators like John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), but he is a missile defense proponent. Raytheon, a top Pentagon contractor, has a big presence in Arizona.

What’s more, during the debt-ceiling drama, he made his position clear.

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“We will need to work very hard to restore spending necessary for our national security and commit to reject the threat of Armageddon inserted into this bill by the White House,” Kyl said in a floor speech earlier this month, referring to the $600 billion in cuts the trigger option would bring, according to an Associated Press report.

“The way a supercommittee works, Sen. Murray cannot protect Boeing, and Sen. Kyl cannot protect Raytheon,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “But both have a strong grasp of defense issues, and can speak during the supercommittee about the connections between military power and economic power.”

Not everyone in the defense realm, however, was so cautiously optimistic.

Raymond Pritchett, a consultant with contacts in the investment community, told The Hill: “Nobody was pleased on the defense side. The defense investment community reacted to the Harry Reid picks with a very concerned 'ugh.' "

Minutes later, after the next six names were announced, Pritchett tweeted: “Attention DOD. You will have no representation on the SuperCongress panel. Expect major, major cuts.”

Gordon Adams, a former senior Office of Management and Budget official, predicted last week that the committee will be made up of leadership loyalists and that this diminished the chances for a bipartisan compromise.

Kerry might be more interested in protecting State Department and foreign aid programs than defense spending lines, Adams said. "Kerry may do more for international affairs than anyone has done so far in this fracas — but they will all listen to their leader.”


Erik Wasson contributed.