Let’s be as clear as possible about this: There aren’t going to be any massive defense cuts. Even if the supercommittee deadlocks and pulls that supposedly fearsome “trigger.”
The biggest news this week out of the deficit super committee this week: Defense Department and Hill hawks are determined never to let cuts in military spending go into effect — even if the committee stays deadlocked. The Times has a good summary of the state of play, following upon an excellent Spencer Ackerman piece earlier this week.
The most important thing to remember about all this is that if the supercommittee misses its deadline and fails to report out a bill, the next step is that nothing happens. Nothing. Early in 2012, a failure will lead to automatic cuts being triggered — but the “trigger” doesn’t actually result in cuts until January 2013. And Congress can act whenever it wants to reverse the trigger — right now, or any time in 2012, or immediately in January 2013 when the new Congress is sworn in. Or, for that matter, later in 2013; there’s nothing particularly permanent about a round of appropriations cuts.
The chatter right now is about what types of cuts Republicans would try to substitue for defense cuts, should the trigger be pulled. But there’s something that people are missing: Substitute cuts aren’t even required by any binding law. So sidestepping defense cuts will be easy if and when leaders in both parties agree to do it, which appears likely
On the one hand, the looming trigger confirms that Barack Obama’s end-game negotiating on the debt limit was a lot better than many liberals believed at the time. It’s clear that Republicans are more worried about the trigger than are the Democrats. On the other, as much as Republicans don’t want to see cuts in military spending, their absolute refusal to ever consider raising taxes by any amount still appears to be the policy preference really driving their actions. As long as that’s the case they’re going to have to choose between defense cuts and deficits — which would balloon if Republicans avoid those triggered cuts — especially as long as Barack Obama is in the White House and the Democrats have a majority in the Senate. This will be slightly awkward, but Republicans will ultimately prefer deficits to defense cuts.
What actually happens to the defense budget depends on one thing: Who wins the next elections. If Dems win, we may start having a serious discussion about what the Pentagon needs and how much we should spend on it. But if Republicans win, expect more defense spending and higher deficits.