We always had limited expectations for the debt deal. We didn’t think that if Republicans pushed the showdown beyond any deadline, Democrats would buckle and endorse a balanced-budget amendment. We did think Republicans could get cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt limit, and they did. In the first phase of the two-tier plan, they got spending caps that will limit the growth of discretionary spending over time for a $900 billion reduction from what Washington was planning to spend. The second phase aims to cut at least another $1.2 trillion, meeting Speaker John Boehner’s goal of achieving cuts roughly equal to the total increase in the debt limit of more than $2 trillion.
But the details matter. As they have emerged over the last days or so, they are worrisome, especially as they pertain to defense. The White House claims that $350 billion will be cut from defense in the first round. Republicans dispute this. What no one disagrees about is that defense is on the line for half of the automatic cuts that will be triggered if a supercommittee charged with coming up with at least another $1.2 trillion in cuts fails to produce, or if Congress doesn’t pass its recommendations. This would mean a roughly $500 billion reduction utterly disconnected from any strategic considerations. Republicans on the committee — the parties get six appointees each, three from each house — will be negotiating with a gun to the head of the Pentagon. Liberal priorities such as Social Security and Medicaid are exempted, and Medicare cut-backs are strictly limited.
It is imperative that Republicans get their most knowledgeable and solid members on the committee, no matter how they voted on the final deal. In the House, the names Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, and Dave Camp come to mind. In the Senate, Jeff Sessions, Jon Kyl, and Pat Toomey. (Sessions, the budget chairman in the Senate, has been an one-man wrecking crew for rotten budget deals, demolishing the Gang of Six proposal, for instance, piece by piece.) Republicans should not get dragged into endless backroom negotiations that allow Democrats — as is their wont — to tell their press how far-reaching and responsible their plan is, when in fact they do not have one. Republicans should make public a serious first step toward entitlement reform without blinking on tax increases.
But the supercommittee is almost guaranteed to fail in agreeing to any large deficit reduction, for the same reasons that months of wrangling did not lead to a grand bargain: The parties’ positions are too far apart. We should assume, then, that the automatic cuts are likely to become law.
That does not mean that they will happen. Future Congresses will have their say, and it is hard to believe that they will accept a ten-year budget path set now. This bill will, however, establish the default settings for federal spending. Liberals who want more domestic discretionary spending will have to get legislation through both chambers of Congress and past the president’s desk. So too for conservatives who want to restore defense spending.
If the automatic cuts become law, restoring defense spending is exactly what we hope Republicans try to do. The cuts would be deep, and the politically easiest places to make savings will be in end-strength, procurement, and training.
It was always certain that any debt deal would only be the starting place, not the end point for a conservative fiscal agenda, requiring much more political combat to control and shape the federal budget. The make-up of the automatic cuts — negotiated at the last minute, behind closed doors with no thought to matching Pentagon budgets to national security — makes that truer than ever.