Former budget director: Supercommittee won’t look to defense for cuts

The supercommittee charged with paring the federal deficit will focus on entitlements and taxes, meaning the Pentagon budget will be a “fallback” place from which to slice, former White House budget chief Alice Rivlin said Friday.

Rivlin and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley applauded the appointments congressional leaders made to the special panel. They said the group is experienced and capable of striking a grand bargain on everything from Social Security to Medicare to tax policy to national security.

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“I don’t think the supercommittee will be [looking at] defense,” Rivlin said during a forum at the Brookings Institution. “Defense cuts are the fallback.”

The time needed to strike an accord during the special committee’s three-month charter means its members will have “no conversation” about from where and how deeply to reduce annual Pentagon budgets through 2023, Rivlin added.

But the panel will have to decide on some defense and national security agency cuts because of the arithmetic of making changes to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, said Rivlin, who was Office of Management and Budget director during the Clinton administration.

Those changes have to be enacted down the road, meaning they would fail to produce savings immediately.

“So that drives you to discretionary spending,” Rivlin said, of which the annual defense budget is about half. “It also drives you to revenues” and tax policy changes, she said.

The debt deal signed into law Aug. 2 by President Obama mandates $350 billion in defense cuts over 10 years. If the super-panel fails to produce massive federal spending cuts by Nov. 23, the Pentagon and other national security agencies would face around $600 billion in additional cuts through 2023.

Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s top security aide, agreed that when it comes to the supercommittee’s work, “it’s about entitlements.”

“If the committee is serious and if” its plan produces true reforms to entitlement programs, Hadley said, “DOD will have to do its part."