Last week, the members of the so-called super committee announced they could not reach a deal to trim $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over 10 years. The back-up plan is $1.2 trillion in automatic “sequestration” cuts that take effect starting in January 2013, with about half of this coming from the defense budget. When you add in the cuts already agreed to in this summer’s debt-ceiling deal, the defense budget will see a not-so-insignificant cut of 14 percent over the next 10 years.
Several Republicans have already vowed to cancel the cuts, preferring deficit reduction by other means. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed that the cuts would leave the country with “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.” And perhaps it’s true that we can’t afford these cuts given our present security needs — that decision should be made by seeking the advice of our military officials and foreign policy leaders. But before lawmakers rush to cancel the scheduled spending cuts, they should keep three things in mind:
First, the sequestration follows upon a massive buildup in defense spending over the last 10 years. According to figures from the Congressional Budget Office, federal defense spending increased by more than 40 percent between 2001 and 2010, even after taking inflation into account. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has separately calculated that in real terms we spent more on defense in 2010 than in any year of the Cold War, including the Reagan buildup years. With this in mind, it seems a bit far-fetched to say that these small cuts would “cripple” the U.S. military.
Second, defense spending consumes a very large portion of the federal budget. In 2011, for example, defense accounted for nearly 20 percent of all federal spending — only Social Security spending was higher. Yet both are considered “sacred cows” by different groups of politicians: Just as many say that trimming back entitlement programs is entirely out of the question for deficit reduction. If everyone got their way, we would never be able to eliminate the massive federal deficits: Even if we cut every dollar of the small pool of spending that remains (non-defense discretionary spending), we would still see about a $650 billion budget shortfall in 2011. To truly shrink the size of government and get our national debt under control, spending cuts in every area of the federal budget, including defense, need to be on the table.
Finally, the debt-ceiling deal reached this summer was a promise from Congress to the American people: Congress promised that in exchange for increasing the national debt, there would be reductions in future deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Even President Obama has it right: We can’t back-track on that promise now by canceling the automatic spending cuts. Some politicians want to spare defense from the automatic cuts and others want to zero out the small changes to federal entitlement programs. The onus is on them to find spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget that everyone can support. In reality, we need immediate, real spending cuts on the order of trillions of dollars to stave off fiscal disaster. The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts is the absolute minimum; politicians can change the composition, but that level of cuts must be upheld.
Our lawmakers have spent themselves into a corner: With massive federal deficits and out-of-control spending growth, the country is heading off of a fiscal cliff, and we’re not in this mess because American families and businesses aren’t paying enough in taxes. So somebody’s favorite pot of spending is going to have to shrink if we want to restore fiscal discipline in Washington, and it’s probably most sensible to cut from all areas of the federal budget.
There are plenty of good ideas to cut spending. The only thing missing is lawmakers’ will to put aside their “sacred cows” and act.
Adam Berkland is a legislative assistant at Americans for Prosperity.