Debt Deal Signed, Fights over Military Spending Next

The legislation signed by President Obama yesterday, as a solution to the debt ceiling debate, includes the possibility of cuts to military spending. But as Chris Preble points out, the legislation guarantees no defense cuts. Republicans will try to dump all the required cuts on non-defense areas. And the White House has already distanced itself from the prospect of any real defense budget cuts, as did Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both support only the first round of cuts, which will at best halt Pentagon growth at roughly inflation.

On The Skeptics blog, I take a more detailed look at deal’s likely impact on military spending. I also examine its political effect, arguing that it will cause at least four political fights.

The first concerns war funding. As Russell Rumbaugh notes, hawks will be tempted to shift the Pentagon’s bill into the war appropriations (overseas contingency operations, officially), which the bill does not cap. That problem is not new, but the bill worsens it. We’ll see if the White House and Congressional Democrats fight to stop it.

Second, for the two years while the security cap is in place, the bill pits security agencies and their congressional advocates in zero sum combat. For obvious electoral reasons, no one will go after veterans. Defense hawks and top military officers will push to make DHS and State eat the minor cuts required. House Republicans negotiated to expand the security category for this reason. DHS, State and the subcommittees that pass their appropriations will fight back. Republicans and thus the House will tend to the first camp; Democrats and the Senate to the second. So the fight will occur in the appropriation committees, conference, and probably White House-Hill discussions. The paucity of cuts limits the carnage, of course.

Third, if the legislation remains in place after two years and a single cap covers all discretionary spending, the fight will shift and become more partisan. To get under the cap, Republicans will push domestic spending cuts. Democrats will prefer defense cuts. The 2012 elections will determine the institutional contours of this fight.

The fourth fight will center on the Joint Committee, with the most interesting conflict among Republicans. Democrats will likely advocate taxes and more defense spending cuts. Even if they can get a deal including taxes with Republican committee members, the House is unlikely to pass it. Democrats’ most attractive option may then be sequestration. Anti-tax Republicans will accept that outcome but clash with neoconservative Republicans happy to raise taxes to pay for military expenditures.

Those that see this plan as a disaster for defense ought to explain why hawks, like Rep. Buck McKeon (Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), Rep. Bill Young (a leading House defense appropriator), and Senator John McCain, support it. They evidently prefer this deal to any available alternative and are gambling that they can protect military spending from the knife.

My guess is that defense spending will be level in 2012, growing roughly with inflation, but get hit by sequestration, meaning real defense cuts in 2013. After that, who knows? The political dynamics will then be quite different.

An original version of this post appeared on the National Interest.