This month’s election results represent the first time in four years that the political stars might be aligned for defense hawks. Republicans won big in 2010, but that election proved a disappointment, as of course did 2012. The difference this time is that Republicans have captured the Senate — and their newcomers aren’t from the same tea-party class as four years ago.
The tea-party wave of 2010 triggered multiple confrontations between Congress and the president over budgets and spending. In each instance, whether it was shutdowns or debt-ceiling spats, the military became the bill payer and not the beneficiary. The 2011 Budget Control Act set these events into motion when the president and Congress agreed to $500 billion in defense cuts and contemplated another $700 billion in automatic cuts, known as sequestration, if they couldn’t agree on cuts to mandatory programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. Instead of incentivizing reforms to mandatory spending, as its architects intended, the sequester became a bitter pill that fiscal hawks and the president were willing to swallow.
For three years, the president and Congress were locked in the status quo of sequestration. The 2012 election returned divided government to Washington, with no clear mandate from voters to change the course of sequestration. Even the compromise negotiated last year between Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan, a rare bipartisan achievement, provided only a two-year Band-aid to the sequester wound — it did little to bring the Pentagon back to health.
Which makes this year’s election so consequential. Ongoing operations against the Islamic State and ebola are only the most recent examples of how we continue to widen the gap between what we ask the military to do and what we provide them to do it. But whereas two years ago House Republicans viewed sequestration as a necessary evil to impose fiscal discipline on Washington, Republicans on the campaign trail this year were clamoring to end the automatic defense cuts.
The incoming class of newly elected Republicans has national security atop its agenda. Senators-elect Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst each enter the Senate having campaigned for a stronger defense. Defeating the Islamic State — not the deficit — was first on Ernst’s agenda when she outlined her priorities on Election Night.
With the Senate in Republican hands, these new legislators will have the ability to craft proposals that focus on defense and can actually pass, rather than being buried by outgoing Democratic leader Harry Reid, as in the past. The House passed legislation on multiple occasions to protect the military from sequestration, but Reid made sure those bills never got an up or down vote in the Senate. As of 2105, the Senate floor will again be open for business.
Yet Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell have been silent on the matter of sequestration. Do they think it won’t be good politics to take on the matter in the next Congress?
Certainly Republican leaders will be unwilling to do anything to raise deficit spending and risk the ire of the Tea Party. In other words, providing budget relief for defense will require finding savings elsewhere. Simply lifting or raising the budget caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act, as the president has proposed, will be a non-starter in a Republican Congress.
Similarly, imposing draconian cuts to domestic discretionary spending may succeed in the House but will face strong opposition in the Senate, including from centrist Republicans. So the solution will have to be a Republican measure that raises caps on defense spending by using savings from entitlement reforms as the offset.
Easier said than done, of course — this is the very formula that led to the Super Committee failure and sequestration. But the political tables have turned in a way that allows Republicans to negotiate directly with the president.
A permanent solution to wipe out sequestration may have to wait until a Republican sits in the White House, but a smaller deal should be realizable. This will be the ultimate test of the new Republican Congress: Can it piece together majorities in both chambers and send measures to the president’s desk for signature? Fortunately, the election will bring new chairmen of the defense committees, such as John McCain and Mac Thornberry, who have the credibility and the force of personality to craft a compromise.
Since Republicans took the House majority in 2010, the parties have had dueling storylines over which is ultimately responsible for the assault on defense budgets. Come January, we’ll have the chance to see whether GOP defense hawks are a strong enough force within the party to ride their election wave and restore American military strength. If not, another election victory will have failed to translate into effective policy – and Republicans will have only themselves to blame.
— Roger Zakheim is an attorney and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee.