The Agenda

Rogers and Helderman on the House GOP’s Effort to Shield the Pentagon from Budget Cuts

At Politico, David Rogers has a story on a legislative effort by House Republicans to shield defense spending from cuts by shifting resources from anti-poverty programs.

Walking away from the August debt accords, Republicans won House approval Thursday of their plan to shift tens of billions from poverty programs to protect the Pentagon from automatic cuts ordered for January under the Budget Control Act.

The 218-199 vote capped a day of often emotional debate and carries with it major implications for the November elections –and the fiscal crisis awaiting Congress at the end of this year.

Building on the House budget resolution in March, the 167-page bill continues an aggressive election-year rewrite of last summer’s agreements to shore up Pentagon spending without having to rely on new tax revenues. Non-defense appropriations already face $27 billion in cuts beyond what the budget law anticipated, and the new measure adds a second round of savings, culled from President Barack Obama’s signature initiatives as well as core benefit programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and the child tax credit.

The long-term unemployed, who have swelled the food stamp rolls, are among the most vulnerable, together with single-mother households and working class immigrant families. Depressed swing states like Florida would feel the pinch, and some of the proposed cuts have been opposed in the past by that state’s young Republican political star, Sen. Marco Rubio, often mentioned as a potential running mate with Mitt Romney. [Emphasis added]

As an advocate of a greatly expanded child tax credit, along the lines of the proposals from Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein, and as someone who believes that the defense budget can indeed be trimmed undermining national security, that last line caught my attention. 

But Rosalind Helderman of the Washington Post offers a somewhat different characterization of the plan:

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said national security would be harmed if the Pentagon lost $55 billion in funding in January. He told colleagues the House framework represented at attempt to deal with a looming problem through serious governing and would put only a small dent in the growth of rapidly expanding social programs.

“If we can’t have a civil debate about how to control the growth of spending around here, then we’ll never get this under control,” he said.

The far-reaching Republican proposal would impose new caps on medical malpractice suits, require federal employees to contribute more for their pensions and require those claiming the child tax credit to submit a social security number. 

It would also restrict eligibility for food stamps and reduce benefits that had been enhanced in the stimulus bill. And it would slice billions from Medicaid. [Emphasis added]

I’m struck by the difference between the descriptions of Rogers and Helderman. While one might conclude that Republicans are premature in reducing the eligibility expansions built into the fiscal stimulus law, and while it may well be an inconvenience for parents to submit Social Security numbers, these don’t seem like intrinsically unreasonable steps to take. Rogers, in contrast, offers a far more apocalyptic take, though one that does make a few substantive points, e.g.:

“There are only tough decisions left,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) answered McGovern. And Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the GOP should get credit for trying “to govern” rather than surrender to mechanical cuts.

“If we can’t have a civil debate about how to slow the growth of spending around here,” Ryan said, “Then we will never get this under control.”

“We have the highest poverty rates in a generation. These programs aren’t working,” he said. “Let’s fix them.”

But few of the savings really represent “fixes” of what are often complicated questions about who should be eligible for benefits. At the same time, the GOP’s single-minded focus on protecting defense is so great that the bill even exempts the Pentagon from a small sliver of $19 million in mandatory savings demanded by the sequester mechanism—while Medicare providers would still be impacted.

The point about “fixes” is fair — but one wonders if Ryan is getting a fair shake out of Rogers, given the tone. I’d be curious to hear a reaction from the House GOP.

My own view, to be clear, is that defense cuts are worth pursuing, provided they are measured and sensible.


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