Domestic programs are at stake, too, if automatic spending cuts kick in next year. But Democratic defenders of those programs believe they can save them by exploiting GOP concerns over military reductions.
It is no secret on Capitol Hill that come January, barring congressional action, huge spending cuts will hit the Pentagon. Congressional Republicans, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and military contractors have taken pains to denounce the planned reductions, which were scheduled as part of the resolution to last year’s debt-ceiling crisis.
But other government programs face equally large cuts, although they have received a scintilla of the attention and outrage that the planned Pentagon cuts have attracted.
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From cancer research to farm inspectors to grants to cities and states and law-enforcement agencies, nearly every sector of government would be affected by the planned $1.2 trillion in cuts, especially in the first year of the nine-year reductions.
While many mandatory programs, such as Medicare, Social Security and others, would be exempt or virtually untouched, roughly $321 billion would be cut from the “nondefense discretionary” category, which represents scores of government spending areas outside the military.
“There has been a great deal of attention to the defense side,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “I think a lot of people simply aren’t aware” of the other cuts, she added.
Murray worked with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to pass an amendment to the farm bill that would compel the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense to deliver a report on the impact of all of the planned whacks. The fact that the Obama administration might be forced to detail where budgets would be sliced underscores one of the key reasons that so little attention has been turned to the impending cuts to nonmilitary programs.
White House officials, along with some top Democrats, have concluded Republicans care so deeply about the roughly $492 billion in planned Pentagon cuts that the military budget will be a bargaining chip Democrats can use at the end of the year to pursue new revenues and leverage in the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts.
In contrast to the hit on the Pentagon, the cuts to nonmilitary programs would be spread across scores of industries and groups, few of which have coalesced. While some administration officials have testified the cuts would be harmful to government programs, few lawmakers have seized on their remarks and run with them.
There is an effort under way to write a letter to members of Congress from leaders of various groups, and the Coalition for Health Funding is trying to build awareness of the cuts through town-hall meetings and other gatherings. “This is really a ‘Hey, what about us?’ effort,” said Emily Holubowich, the group’s executive director.
Further, because certain programs such as Social Security and Veterans Affairs have been exempt from the cuts, there is a feeling among some Democrats that they have less at risk than Republicans defending Pentagon cuts. Republicans find that view baffling. “I guess they think it’s OK,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said he believed cuts to both types of spending would be devastating.
“There is political pain and substantive pain” in the cuts to nonmilitary spending, said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research group, who noted that roughly one-quarter of those cuts would affect Americans at or below the poverty line.
“When people start saying, ‘This means you’re going to cut the National Cancer Institute or air traffic control or the FBI or Border Patrol by 8.4 percent, those little phrases can ring bells with the American public.”
According to the groups’ research, a portion of nonmilitary discretionary moneys are in grants to states and local governments, including education programs, law enforcement and fire departments.
The end game for Democrats, according to half a dozen aides, is to wait for Republicans to become excessively nervous about the Pentagon cuts and start their bargaining to undo the entire package from there.
For example, Democrats would like to end the Bush-era tax cuts for high earners, close tax loopholes for some companies and other revenue measures. “I imagine you will hear more about all of these things as we get closer,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.