December 26, 2013
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

It appears that one of the first orders of business for Congress when it returns next month will be undoing some of the much-celebrated deficit reduction that was achieved before members left town. In what National Journal predicts could be a “rare bipartisan moment,” senators from both parties are cooking up ways to restore the $6 billion in cuts to military pensions over 10 years.

This presents yet another case of the age-old question: What do supposed deficit hawks actually want to cut?

The military pension reductions have been a flash point of notable anger on the right: conservative media lit up with tales of the allegedly unpatriotic budget-cutting, particularly when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) proposed a bill that would close a tax loophole that can be used by undocumented immigrants to pay for a restoration of the military pension losses. The Senate voted it down, and conservatives got their storyline: Democrats want to take away soldier’s pensions so they can keep giving handouts to “illegals.” Fox News, as you might expect, was all over it.

But many of the conservatives fulminating the outrage are card-carrying deficit hawks. Sessions has a running count of the U.S. national debt on his Senate Web site. Fox News has endless content scaremongering over a debt crisis. Sure, Sessions wants to keep the total amount of deficit reduction in place, but through different means. But why not do both? Military pension costs are exploding, and even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants reform.

Many proud deficit-hawking pundits are engaged in a similar contradiction. Joe Scarborough had an infamous battle with Paul Krugman over debts and deficits this year, but he now is out there calling the military pension reform “sick” and “obscene.”

To be clear, I think they are correct on the narrow point of the military pension cuts. Forget all the corporate welfare and generous loopholes in the federal tax code that have remained untouched — even in the context of just the defense budget, the pensions cuts are pretty much indefensible. Given all of the obscene spending at the Pentagon on unwanted weapons systems, and given that the Department of Defense is engaged in enough waste that the Government Accountability Office says it is literally unauditable, it’s hard to justify taking money out of the retirement accounts of people who volunteered to fight for the country, often for middle-class incomes at best.

This is particularly true in terms of how we got to our present fiscal situation. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a major driver of our national debt, asking the people who fought and sacrificed in those wars to help pay the tab with their pensions is perverse.

But that’s not the position of Sessions et al., nor most of the 45 members of the House who want to undo the cuts. They don’t want to tackle defense spending at all, actually.

In the sad tradition of deficit reduction in Washington, cuts are okay as long as it’s not “my people.” The budget deal actually cuts pensions government-wide, so any member of Congress from either party who favors restoring the military pension benefits should be asked a simple question: why is cutting military pensions unacceptable, but the pension of a career Environmental Protection Agency scientist is fair game?

This should moment of clarity for the many Very Serious Pundits who applaud the conservative budget-busters. It’s (well past) time to realize that when Republican deficit hawks exempt any revenue hikes and exempt the military budget from reduction, it’s less about solving the deficit and more about ending spending they don’t like. It’s a well-worn point by now, but apparently one that needs repeating.