The Pentagon began grappling Monday with the possibility that it will have to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the military budget over the next decade, but confusion over the actual size of the reductions was rampant.
The Pentagon began grappling Monday with the possibility that it will have to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the military budget over the next decade, but there were so few details in the debt-ceiling deal reached by the White House and Congress that confusion over the actual size of the reductions was rampant.
There was at least some clarity for the immediate future: Cuts in next year’s military budget are likely to be minimal or at least modest, depending on the way the counting is done. Beyond that, military budget analysts said, there was a real possibility that cuts in military spending would amount to about $550 billion over the next 10 years — or $150 billion more than what President Obama already had requested.
Still, the military cuts were sufficiently backloaded to entice Republicans to sign on to the deal, as happened Monday afternoon when Rep. Howard McKeon of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced his support.
McKeon, who is strongly opposed to deep military cuts, said in a statement that he backed the deal “with deep reservations” but called it “the least bad proposal before us.”
But there were potentially far more ominous signs for Republicans opposed to military cuts. In an apparent strategy by Democrats to try to force Republicans’ hands, the deal says that after an immediate $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, a bipartisan congressional committee must come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts by November — or trigger automatic across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion starting in 2013. Half of those would come from military spending.
As at least one Republican presidential candidate saw it, the deal would make it easier for Democrats to extract concessions on tax increases from Republicans if there is the threat of draconian military cuts hanging over Republican heads. The candidate, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said Monday that the deal “opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.”
The apparent strategy does not necessarily apply to tea party-allied Republicans, who are divided on military cuts and, in many cases, would like to see a smaller government across the board and a less expensive U.S. presence around the world.
Under the terms of the debt-ceiling deal, agreed to Sunday by Obama and congressional leaders to avoid an impending U.S. default, so-called security spending would be capped at $684 billion in 2012, compared with $689 billion that is being spent this year. Security spending includes the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and intelligence, among others.
This year, the Pentagon got $529 billion of the $689 billion in security spending. What is not yet known about the reduced total of $684 billion in security spending for 2012 is whether Congress would hit the Pentagon with the entire $5 billion cut — budget analysts said that was unlikely — or whether the reductions would be spread throughout government agencies, or perhaps even leave the Pentagon untouched.
“This is political Kabuki,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who oversaw military spending in the Clinton budget office. “We really don’t have anything hard to get our arms around.”
Next year’s military cuts are more substantial, however, if lawmakers look at a different number: $553 billion, the amount of money Obama requested from Congress for the Pentagon in the fiscal 2012 budget. Congress has not yet passed that budget, and at least one congressional committee already has reduced the White House request.
But Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a public-policy research group in Washington, estimated that with $553 billion as a starting point, reductions in the 2012 Pentagon budget under the debt-ceiling deal could amount to $37 billion less than the Pentagon was expecting. In that case, he said, “the department is going to cry foul.”
Over the next 10 years, the White House says, the immediate caps on all spending will cut $1 trillion from the budget. Of that, some $350 billion is estimated to come from the Pentagon, although administration officials provided no details of how they reached that conclusion.
Overall, though, it is familiar if unhappy territory for the Pentagon. The new $350 billion projected cut over 10 years replaces Obama’s request in April that the Pentagon cut $400 billion over 12 years — more or less a wash for the Defense Department, which has already been reviewing where to make reductions.
On Monday, Pentagon officials were publicly cautious about what they acknowledge are inevitable spending cuts. (The debt-ceiling deal, however, does not factor in any savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated at some $1 trillion in reduced spending. )
“Like everybody else we are waiting for the final Hill action and then we’ll be able to review all the figures and do a more thorough analysis,” said Doug Wilson, a Pentagon spokesman.
Nonetheless, last week Gen. Martin Dempsey, Obama’s nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that proposed cuts as high as $800 billion to $1 trillion to the military budget would be “extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.”