In spite of right-wing carping and grandstanding by faux advocates of a strong military (especially Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who gave “strong on defense” speeches overseas but now has returned home to continue genuflecting to the far right), Republican negotiators have a right to be pleased with the budget deal they came up with. They have, most important, forced the president finally to back off demands for more taxes to reduce spending cuts. Moreover the deal, as we anticipated yesterday, makes a lot of sense.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) explained in a written statement:
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 would set overall discretionary spending for the current fiscal year at $1.012 trillion — about halfway between the Senate budget level of $1.058 trillion and the House budget level of $967 billion. The agreement would provide $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. In fiscal year 2014, defense discretionary spending would be set at $520.5 billion, and non-defense discretionary spending would be set at $491.8 billion.
The sequester relief is fully offset by savings elsewhere in the budget. The agreement includes dozens of specific deficit-reduction provisions, with mandatory savings and non-tax revenue totaling approximately $85 billion. The agreement would reduce the deficit by between $20 and $23 billion.
The deal is for two years, meaning that we will not have another shutdown fight for the remainder of the Obama presidency. This is good news for the country and for majority Republican government; it’s bad for the right-wing groups that make money by fundraising off shutdown crisis after crisis. It also, thereby, disables the White House’s ability to raise taxes for the remainder of the second term. On this critical point — demanding even more taxes to offset cuts — the president has lost for good.
The $85 billion in spending cuts are real and specific, as the House Budget Committee explained in a breakdown. Included are items such as increased pension contributions by federal employees and adjusting the cost-of-living formula for able-bodied military retirees. If anything, the cuts and user fees from programs most Americans have never heard of indicate that if a GOP president and Senate are elected, there are many more cuts to be found in all the nooks and crannies of government.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was clear about the implications for national security. His written statement read in part, “The agreement protects our national security and improves our defenses in a world that remains very dangerous, especially as Iran marches towards nuclear capability.” In a TV appearance on CNBC Cantor explained, “The savings are maintained and what we’ve always said was we need the savings in the mandatory, the entitlement, the auto pilot spending arena. And the savings that are inside this budget deal really are primarily derived from reforms to the pension benefits for federal employees. This is the federal government finally trying to do what most responsible states are doing in dealing with their unfunded liabilities connected with their pensions.” House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) statement praised the agreement as well, pointing to cuts in “mandatory spending programs that will produce real, lasting, savings,” the absence of tax hikes and the benefits to national security.
Conservatives griping that the sequester has been “lost” are both exaggerating (the sequester remains with alterations only for the next two years) and confusing the means (sequester) with the ends (spending restraint and debt reduction). In the new deal, more savings are extracted with a mix of cuts designed to spare defense from reductions even Democratic secretaries of defense have decried as dangerous.
Advocates of a strong defense showed little patience for those who like to posture on national security, but who oppose the agreement restoring critical defense spending in search of some imaginary deal. Danielle Pletka at the American Enterprise Institute told me Tuesday evening, “Republicans face important choices ahead about what kind of a party they’re going to have: Are they going to be the party of the selfish libertarian right that wants America to be weak and isolationist? Or are they going to be the party of a strong America? There are plenty of ways to reform the Pentagon, but across-the-board cuts are a fool’s game.”
Her colleague Fred Kagan echoed that sentiment via e-mail:
Using the defense budget to rein in federal spending is incredibly dangerous, unwise, and will fail. Defense cuts, which started before the Budget Control Act was passed, will take more than $100 billion out of the defense budget every year through 2021. Those cuts have already devastated military readiness, with Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno reporting that only two of the Army’s 45 brigade combat teams are combat ready. Thirty one Air Force squadrons have been grounded, sorties of Navy ships cancelled, major modernization programs shelved, and soldiers and civilians have been laid off. . . . The simple fact is that defense spending is NOT a major driver of growing debt, and eliminating defense entirely would slow the growth of that debt only marginally.
He added, “That Congressman Ryan and Senator Murray have to fight so hard to get even this insufficient amount of funding restored to defense is evidence of deep bipartisan irresponsibility about national security. Anyone seriously thinking about being president in 2017 should reflect on the risks of destroying America’s defenses in the face of the dangers that will grow between now and then.”
In short, the deal puts back in a small amount of defense spending without raising taxes — the link the president has insisted upon for years. As important is the beginnings of smarter debt reduction via entitlement reform. The fact that there is a budget at all, one arrived at with almost no input from the White House, will go a long way toward combating the view that Republicans are obstructionist. The deal is modest, but considering the GOP doesn’t have the Senate or the White House, it is remarkable Ryan got as much as he did. The critics, of course, would like another shutdown if they don’t get their list of dream items with no trade-offs. In the real world, however the GOP got more than it “gave up.” (There is also no unemployment benefits extension, something the left plainly wanted.)
Right-wing critics don’t want to give up short-term spending cuts for longer-term savings. By that logic, they would never support Medicare reforms like premium support or Social Security reforms or any of the big-ticket entitlement changes we all know are necessary – because all these reforms would be phased-in over a period of years, some of them more than a decade. That is how entitlement reform works. (And if anyone thinks the BCA discretionary cuts are “guaranteed” all they need do is imagine what would happen if the GOP lost the House and Democrats kept the Senate. Suddenly, poof goes the “certain” short-term cuts.)
Senate shutdown squad members can grandstand and vote no. (There is no filibuster on budget resolutions.) Once again, they let their colleagues do the hard work of governance. No matter. The deal cements the basic thrust of five years of GOP fighting: No more tax hikes, more money for defense and some entitlement reform. Sometimes, you have to take yes for an answer.