The battle over the debt ceiling laid bare the need to cut the deficit while foreshadowing a fierce fight in Congress to make actual budget cuts.
Both the "supercommittee," a group of 12 Republicans and Democrats, and other congressional panels are working to find at least $1.2 trillion to cut from government spending over the next decade. However, neither the supercommittee in particular nor Congress in general seems to want to make real changes to government spending.
The biggest debate is over cutting military spending, which has grown 81 percent in since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead of looking for opportunities to scrap wasteful military programs, some lawmakers are seeking loopholes to avoid making any defense cuts at all.
The debt ceiling fight drew attention to the burgeoning military budget, but also cushioned it from real reductions by putting it in a category called "security spending," which includes the "civilian security spending" of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Intelligence, international affairs, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. According to the bill, the supercommittee must find cuts in that category, but they can split the reductions within the category as they like.
There's bipartisan support for trimming military spending to cut to help shrink the deficit. Supercommittee member Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) supports the idea and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has quoted Adm. Mike Mullen's call to challenge the "permissive funding environment" that has protected the Pentagon from making any hard choices over the past 10 years. Even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed that the military budget can't pass through the fiscal crisis unscathed.
Still, the supercommittee seems unlikely to make substantial military cuts and quite likely to cut spending for the other agencies under the "security spending" umbrella, even though the Pentagon gets the lion's share of that category's funding. Supercommittee member Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) demonstrated that position when he threatened to quit the committee if military cuts were even considered.
In the broader Congress, military spending seems equally safe. The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended freezing, not reducing, that part of the budget, and the House Appropriations Committee recommended increasing it.
Even a budget freeze will keep military spending at the highest level since WWII. More troubling is that the Senate has found a loophole to protect favored programs from any cuts or caps by moving the programs into the "war-related" account, directly funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is exempt. Congress should shun that kind of gimmick and find real waste to cut.
In this time of austerity, lawmakers should slash the wasteful military expenditures often identified by congressional and independent reports. For instance, former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb reported that the Pentagon has spent about $50 billion on weapons programs that it has had to cancel. The Pentagon requests funds to store and maintain America's fleet of 5,795 tanks, according to the Brookings Institute, and each year it spends over $50 billion on nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-related programs, such as operations costs and missile defense, according to the Ploughshares Fund. Not all of this funding is essential or even contributes to making the country more secure.
Congress now has to make direct tradeoffs in the security category. Funding for 152 Veterans Affairs hospitals now has to compete with fighter jets orders. Valuable programs that secure U.S. troops abroad and provide grants for counterterrorism efforts could be eviscerated because Congress and the supercommittee are sheltering military spending from overdue reductions. To make deep cuts in these already underfunded programs would undercut national security.
Over the years, treating military spending as a sacred cow has turned budget debates into a question of how to balance providing for the Pentagon with finding money for other priorities, rather than demanding to know if every defense dollar is worth it. The supercommittee and Congress have an opportunity to rein in military spending, and they owe it to American taxpayers to negotiate realistic and fair cuts. What about the $31- $60 billion spent on contractors that's unaccounted for in Iraq and Afghanistan? Start there.