The potentates on the Potomac claim that President Barack Obama's signature on the "debt deal" solves the immediate problems created by Washington's spendthrift fiscal madness while "protecting America's future." Truth be told, it does neither. Here's why.
The arcane legislation cobbled together by House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the Obama White House doesn't increase our taxes, but it does raise the U.S. government's debt limit by a staggering $2 trillion in order to "preserve our AAA credit rating." The agreement says our government will somehow reduce spending by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. It also creates a special 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, six from each house of Congress -- to propose ways to reduce our federal deficit by $1.5 trillion. This joint committee is to present its deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving, and Congress must pass it by Christmas. Sound complicated? It is. And worse, the whole agreement is chock-full of dirty little secrets.
The "deal" identifies no automatic cuts in so-called entitlement spending -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. But it does require reductions in national defense expenditures, of 6 percent next year and 7.5 percent in 2013. In round numbers, that's about $400 billion less that the U.S. will spend on defending itself over the next decade. Worse, the cuts will begin while we still are fighting 2.5 wars. And that's not all.
Though Republicans claim the legislation will "protect" our military -- now closing on a decade at war -- from "major cuts," that's a hollow promise. The new law mandates that funds for national security and "discretionary domestic programs," not entitlements, be automatically "sequestered" -- meaning "not spent" -- if Congress cannot agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by Christmas. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this "trigger mechanism" would double cuts in defense and require across-the-board reductions in military spending. He termed this outcome "dangerous" and "completely unacceptable."
The defense secretary's comments echo those of U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey's last week. During confirmation hearings to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dempsey warned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would be "extraordinarily difficult and very high-risk" to double the Obama administration's commitment to cut $400 billion from our military over the next decade. In a written response to committee questions, he said, "National security didn't cause the debt crisis nor will it solve it."
It's hard to imagine Panetta and Dempsey's hard truth's being welcomed in the West Wing, but it's refreshing to hear nonetheless. For months, administration officials and too many in Congress have been quoting outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen's claim that "the biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt."
Notably, this "threat assessment" justified major cuts in defense by the Obama administration in the fiscal 2011 budget. Ballistic missile defense, the F-22 fifth-generation fighter, the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Army's Future Combat Systems, new C-17 cargo aircraft and the Navy's next-generation nuclear submarine all got the ax. It didn't matter what risk these cuts imposed; all that mattered was cutting.
Since then, the Iranians have accelerated their quest to acquire nuclear weapons. China's new assertiveness in the Pacific now alarms our allies in Tokyo, Seoul and Manila. Russia's oil and natural gas-fueled modernization of its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles has expanded -- even as Vladimir Putin describes us as "parasites."
For the record, the Obama administration's original fiscal 2012 request for our military -- made in February by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- was for $553 billion. The Pentagon now is planning to fight 2.5 wars, replace worn-out equipment and retain the world's brightest, best-educated and most combat-experienced military force on less than $520 billion. Though Congress is now on recess and the president is playing golf, the new fiscal year starts in less than eight weeks -- and there still is no defense budget.
When our elected officials finally get back to work in Washington, it would be nice if they would recall a few of their responsibilities. First, what we spend on defending ourselves should be based on the risks we face if we don't buy what we need. Second, "provide for the common defense" is an essential function of government. Third, the word "entitlement" does not appear in our Constitution. We the People regard failure to heed these admonitions as nothing less than dereliction of duty.