If Congress is going to step back from the fiscal cliff and avoid the walloping tax increases and arbitrary spending cuts that would automatically take place under “sequestration,” both liberals and conservatives need to step forward and compromise.
One example is the way some conservative Republican members of Congress are acknowledging upfront that defense spending has to be included in any reasonable budget agreement.
In the Senate, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has told his colleagues that if lawmakers are “to be legitimate and have any integrity” in supporting fiscal discipline, “everything has to be on the table.”
Coburn, an energetic deficit hawk who served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and voted for its deficit-reduction plan, says his fellow Republicans err when they signal that “it’s OK to cut spending anywhere except the Defense Department.”
The Oklahoma senator has walked the walk with a detailed set of recommendations for cuts in an array of federal departments, including Defense. His proposals include eliminating purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the Navy and Marine Corps ($18 billion in savings), terminating the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) program and instead upgrading and improving the Patriot systems ($13 billion savings), and reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10 and the number of Navy air wings from 10 to nine ($7 billion savings).
This is not to say that those ideas are necessarily the best, but Coburn is right to put forward specific proposals that can be scrutinized and debated. Battening down the budget hatches and refusing to make any serious changes isn’t a responsible approach.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. House, a small group of conservative Republicans has pitched a similar message. The most outspoken member of the group is a staunch conservative Republican from South Carolina, Mick Mulvaney.
He told Politico: “If we don’t take defense spending seriously, it undermines our credibility on other spending issues. When we speak candidly about a spending problem and we then seek to puff up the defense budget, it leads people to believe that we aren’t taking the problem seriously.”
Several months ago Mulvaney helped lead a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to build support for a successful House vote to cut $1.1 billion from a $608 billion defense bill.
Last week, 11 Republicans in the House, including Mulvaney, joined with 11 Democrats in a letter endorsing cuts in defense spending as part of a comprehensive budget compromise. The letter rightly expressed concern about “the careless and arbitrary way that sequestration reduces defense spending.” The proper approach, the lawmakers said, is to identify cuts based on strategic analysis.
Their letter quoted Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in a public address in 2010, “The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” The Pentagon “must, and will, do our part.”
At the same time that these conservatives are acknowledging the need for restraint on defense spending, liberal members of Congress are going to have to do the same on entitlements.
We noted just the other day that two former officials with the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget, Kenneth S. Baer and Jeffrey B. Liebman, have written straightforwardly that “the main reason expenditures are rising this decade is that spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is increasing by a whopping 3.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product as the baby boomers age and retire.”
It remains uncertain whether enough members of Congress will adopt the type of independent thinking needed to reach a sound budget compromise.
But it is encouraging that at least some members are willing to take the political heat from their party base. That is what it will take if our country is to avoid that long fall off the fiscal cliff.