The debate about raising the debt ceiling is mercifully over, though few people seem happy with the final outcome. Much of the debate about the deal has focused on domestic spending and entitlements, but the initial spending cuts and the plan to be developed by the new “super Congress” will also have major impacts for US foreign policy.
Depending on whom you ask, the Pentagon either got a free ride or the deal decimates the military budget. Given the leverage that Republicans had in this debate, it’s not surprising that the Pentagon got off easy in the first round of cuts.
First of all, military and civilian spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the budget category known as Overseas Contingency Operations) is off the table in the first round of cuts. This is a disappointing move given the enormous cost of the failed military strategy that could be reallocated to domestic programs that could revitalize the economy and create jobs.
You’ll hear some people talk about the Pentagon making $350 billion in cuts over the next ten years, but the leadership found a way to dilute this so they could bring more Republicans along. The deal imposes a spending cap on “security spending,” which lumps Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the international affairs budget in with the Pentagon. Even this is incredibly vague, as even Armed Services Committee leaders Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain have no idea what the deal actual means for the Pentagon.
To meet the spending cap for 2012, the House will need to cut an additional $10 billion from these budgets beyond what they already slashed. That could easily be made up by cutting into the $17 billion increase the House gave the Pentagon, but given how hawks have pitched a fit about even modest military budget cuts, they are likely to go after these other security areas to make up the difference.
That could be devastating to key diplomacy and development programs. As I wrote earlier this week, the House already made massive cuts to the international affairs budget, and it is ludicrous to expect this chronically underfunded area to bear the brunt of further budget cuts when there is much waste to be found in the Pentagon budget.
In the short term, the Senate is our best bet for shifting this imbalance, as they have not marked up their version of the 2012 budget yet. The next few weeks will be crucial in pushing senators to put forward a budget that reflects a more balanced approach to security and take a hard negotiating stance with Republicans in developing a final product.
As for the years ahead, the fate of these budgets will lie with the “super Congress” made up of 12 lawmakers appointed by House and Senate leadership. They will be tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in cuts or revenue. If Congress cannot pass their recommendations, it will trigger an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts, including $600 billion from Pentagon spending. This trigger mechanism is meant to serve as an incentive to pass an alternative plan. This process will provide us an opportunity to push for serious cuts to wasteful Pentagon and nuclear weapons spending, and make sure the international affairs budget doesn’t get the short end of the stick.