Fight over Defense budget has familiar ring

As Republicans and Democrats drew the battle lines last week for a yearlong, two-front war over the 2013 Defense budget, their attack plans looked familiar.

Both parties are using last year’s political battles to try to gain an advantage in 2012 in the fight over defense spending.

At a series of budget hearings last week, Republicans repeatedly hammered President Obama’s new military strategy and the budget that goes with it — which will trim $487 billion over the next decade — as cutting too deeply and threatening U.S. military superiority. They accuse Obama of seeking out Pentagon cuts last year and shaping a military strategy around an arbitrary amount.

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Democrats, meanwhile, have been quick to respond that it was last year’s Budget Control Act — which a majority of Republicans voted for — that led to the $487 billion in cuts. They say Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta crafted a responsible budget with the military’s backing that grapples with the cuts Congress enacted.

Looming over the 2013 budget debate is the threat of sequestration, which would trigger an additional $500 billion in Defense cuts in January of next year. The sequester was part of last year’s Budget Control Act that was enacted after the supercommittee failed to find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.

Last week’s three hearings on the budget with Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey showed that the election-year debate over defense spending is poised to focus as much on how the military wound up in the budget-cutting crosshairs as on what to do about it.

“The debate isn’t really about defense right now — it’s about the deficit, taxes and sequestration,” Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an email.

“Congress still hasn’t figured out how they are going to tackle the deficit over the long term,” Harrison said. “That was the sticking point in last year’s budget debate and what led to the Budget Control Act and the creation of the supercommittee. But the supercommittee failed to resolve anything, so we are destined to fight the same battles all over again.”

Starting off last Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) said the Obama administration’s argument that the current cuts are based on a strategic review of military priorities “doesn’t add up.”

“I am seriously concerned about how we arrived at this point,” said McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “On April 13, 2011, the president of the United States announced his intention to reduce the Department of Defense budget by $400 billion through 2023. However, his announcement was unsupported by any type of comprehensive strategic review or risk assessment.”

The following day, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) repeated the argument that the president said he wanted to cut “at least $400 billion from defense last April, in advance of any strategic review.”

“An honest and valid strategy for national defense can't be founded on the premise that we must do more with less or even less with less,” McKeon said.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) pushed Panetta on whether he would have preferred a smaller cut than $487 billion.

“You know, that would have been nice, but we were mandated to come up with $487 billion,” Panetta responded.

House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) defended the Pentagon’s budget, saying that the level of cuts made “were passed by this Congress.”

“I know some members of this committee voted for it and some members didn't, but it's the law of the land, passed by the House and the Senate,” Smith said.

The threat of sequestration is shaping up to overshadow the 2013 budget debate, and its roots in last year’s debt deal continue to drive the conversation.

McCain criticized Obama for not addressing sequestration in his 2013 budget, and said at Tuesday’s hearing that “domestic politics is taking priority over national security, with the president saying he would veto an effort by Congress to eliminate sequestration that does not include raising taxes.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the hearing that the president’s budget actually reversed sequestration because it included an additional $3 trillion in deficit reduction, prompting a figurative eye-roll from Republicans because the president’s budget has almost zero chance of being adopted.

Panetta, Dempsey and the service chiefs all emphasized to Congress once again just how devastating sequestration would be.

“I don't believe this budget incurs unacceptable risk. I am prepared to say that sequestration would pose unacceptable risk,” Dempsey told the Senate panel. “Sequestration leaves me three places to go to find the additional money: operations, maintenance and training. That's the definition of a hollow force.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have said they want to fix sequestration. When it comes to solving the problem, however, the two parties fall back to last year’s deadlocked debate.

Democrats say that tax increases need to be part of the equation to reach the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that would turn off the sequester, which Republicans have resisted. Republicans want to tackle entitlement spending to reach the necessary reductions without raising taxes.

McCain and McKeon have introduced similar legislation to delay sequestration for one year by cutting the federal workforce. Democrats quickly opposed their bills, and Panetta also said Thursday he did not back the plan.

“Frankly, I don't think you should de-trigger sequester on the backs of our civilian workforce,” Panetta said.

Democrats have also resisted McCain and McKeon’s short-term efforts, suggesting the long-term deficit-reduction goal that has eluded the supercommittee is what’s needed.

But many in Congress don’t expect sequestration to be resolved until after the election, leaving defense cuts as a presidential campaign issue. That’s likely to keep the budget debate standing still for most of 2012, Harrison said. 

“Until some of these larger issues begin to come into focus, I don’t think the debate on the Defense budget will progress much,” Harrison said. “Regardless of how this November’s election goes, the budget math is still the same.”