By Frank Oliveri, CQ Roll Call
The senator to first float the idea of another $100 billion in defense cuts as a part of fiscal cliff negotiations is unsure how the cuts might be applied under the president’s most recent proposal, but he indicated that a significant portion of the first year’s cuts could come from the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there was no real study prior to his making the proposal, but it represents only about a fifth of what the military might face should negotiations between the president and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, break down. A budget sequester with defense cuts totaling $500 billion over 10 years would take effect on Jan. 3 if there’s no fiscal deal.
The sequester is part of a bipartisan deficit reduction law (PL 112-25), and would come on top of budget caps that already will reduce future defense spending plans by $487 billion over the same period.
As part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, the president floated a plan this week that included $200 billion in discretionary spending reductions, half of which would come from defense.
In addition to ending the sequester, President Barack Obama and Boehner are discussing the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, an increase in the debt ceiling, extending the fix to alternative minimum tax, continuing the current levels of unemployment insurance and extending the cut to the payroll tax.
When asked whether he had done any detailed planning before making his compromise proposal earlier this year, Levin said, “No. We didn’t look at it like that. We were looking for a number that was responsible.”
Levin suggested, however, that while $100 billion would be difficult it would be manageable. It would cost the department about $10 billion a year.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week that $100 billion is an amount worthy of consideration, but only if it was coupled with “meaningful” reductions in entitlement spending.
Few have looked in detail at where the cuts might fall, according to senior congressional aides.
One aide said, in fact, that lawmakers and staffers won’t have any idea how cuts might occur until a deal is reached. The aide noted that decisions made by the president and Boehner could include further actions affecting defense, which could skew the number higher or lower.
The most fungible accounts managed by the Defense Department are related to operations and maintenance, and are based on projected future use, including fuel costs, training time and issues as mundane as tires.
But the department has raided those accounts before, and some are reluctant to consider cutting them too deeply.
Room in Afghanistan
Levin suggested a significant portion of the $10 billion in cuts in the first year could be achieved if the president decides, sometime later this month, to increase the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan in the coming year.
Obama is reviewing a report from the current commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan about the coming fighting season, the forces needed during that time and the pace of a drawdown that ends with the departure of most U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014.
Most experts believe the United States will keep between 10,000 and 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, with its allies providing an equal number.
Current funding expected in fiscal 2013 is predicated on a force of 68,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Gordon Adams, a defense expert at the Stimson Center, said at least half of the $10 billion in savings in the first year likely would come from the drawdown of U.S. troops, significantly reducing the cost effects on the Pentagon.
“I could do this in my sleep,” said Adams, who managed defense spending in the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton administration. “Will it be a re-estimate for an outlay rate for future contracts? Possibly. Will it take a bite out of operations and maintenance accounts? Likely. Will it be finding, in accelerated troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, four to five billion dollars less than projected? Yes.”
As a result, Adams said, “Nobody will kill a hardware program. No one will kill strategy, and appropriators have always been able to find billions to cover their pet rocks. All you need is a wire brush.”
But some Republicans have previously rejected using war-related spending reductions to account for required spending cuts, arguing that cuts need to come from departments’ base budgets, not from their Overseas Contingency Operations accounts.