The now infamous “fiscal cliff” Congress averted just hours before the New Year’s deadline left most Americans with more questions than answers. Though the deal covers some of the most contentious tax issues, it leaves open the possibility that automatic spending cuts will merely be delayed two months. Another cliff looms in the not-too-distant future.
The budget deal lawmakers sealed on January 1 focuses almost entirely on revenue, postponing the tough decisions on federal spending until March. At that point, the failure to reach a decision will cause the spending knife to come down automatically.
Those cuts, though slightly smaller than the spending reductions that we’d be seeing if we’d gone off the cliff, will still take the form of a “meat axe” approach in both their scope and broad disregard for strategy. Unless Congress acts to devise a more thoughtful approach, this indiscriminate budget slashing will affect both unnecessary programs and those that are vital to national security.
While the prospect of across-the-board cuts is a concern, there’s widespread agreement among national security leaders and experts alike that the size of the cuts wouldn’t devastate our country’s ability to defend itself. Rather, a hard look at the budget would give Congress an opportunity to weed out clear areas of mismanagement and waste. America would create a stronger and more cohesive military force.
Recently, the Coalition for Fiscal and National Security, a group of former defense officials that includes former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, stated in a full-page ad: “In our judgment, advances in technological capabilities and the changing nature of threats make it possible, if properly done, to spend less on a more intelligent, efficient and contemporary defense strategy that maintains our military superiority and national security.”
Spending cuts are coming no matter what. Congress must deal with this certainty in an intelligent fashion. But determining the best reductions will require tough decisions that our lawmakers have deferred for over a year and a half. The solution won’t come easily, particularly in light of the sharp political divide that still exists over decisions to increase taxes further or cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These decisions will generate intense debates as the next round of debt ceiling talks gets underway.
Unfortunately, the debt ceiling deadline coincides with the deadline for automatic spending cuts. That makes everything even more complicated.
“I’ve never seen a period of greater budgetary uncertainty,” Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale said. “It gives new meaning to the phrase ‘March Madness.'”
Adjusting for inflation, today’s baseline military budget (excluding the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) amounts to just seven percent less than Pentagon spending at the peak of the Cold War. As U.S. involvement in those long wars comes to a close, military spending will naturally decline. The choice is whether Congress will allow across-the-board cuts to damage U.S. national security, out of little more than fear of political blowback, or will take responsibility for identifying waste and strengthening our armed forces.
“We’ve got to make hard choices,” Senator Carl Levin said. “No area can be exempt.” At the end of this debate, the Pentagon and the country could be stronger than ever, or fighting to recover from falling off a cliff. That’s up to Congress.