As More Republican Lawmakers Back Pentagon Cuts, a Democratic Bargaining Chip Loses Value
By PATRICK O’CONNOR
WASHINGTON—Rep. Doug Collins, a freshman congressman from Georgia, is a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve who did a brief tour in Iraq in 2008. But ties to the military didn’t stop him from voting to cut $3.5 billion from the Pentagon this year.
Mr. Collins is among the growing ranks of elected Republicans who want to subject the Defense Department to the same belt-tightening being imposed on other agencies.
As Congress girds for its next budget battle, the willingness of rank-and-file Republicans to cut the once-sacrosanct Pentagon budget is bolstering the negotiation position of GOP leaders.
Democrats in past years might have banked on the GOP to make concessions, such as agreeing to higher tax revenues or smaller cuts elsewhere in the budget, in order to protect military spending. But GOP leaders now are feeling less pressure to protect the Pentagon, which is due to take an additional $20 billion in cuts early next year under a set of spending reductions known as the sequester.
“There should be no illusion that the Department of Defense is immune from wasteful spending, fraud and mismanagement that costs taxpayer millions and billions of dollars,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) said at a hearing last week to open formal budget talks between the House and Senate.
Military chiefs and top Pentagon officials will meet with President Barack Obama next week to discuss the military’s future as the Senate begins debate on a bill authorizing 2014 defense spending.
The spending level sought by the Senate bill, $625.1 billion, is lower than the 2013 authorization of $633 billion. But the Pentagon had to cut about $41 billion from the amount approved for 2013, and could be forced to take more cuts in the amount approved for 2014.
“I understand the pressing need for our nation to get its fiscal house in order, and I’m on board with that endeavor,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of U.S. naval operations, testified Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But it’s imperative that we do so in a thoughtful manner to ensure that we sustain the appropriate war-fighting capability.”
Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, agreed. “We’ve taken measures in the past to lean the force,” Gen. Amos said, citing civilian jobs, spending on reservists and travel costs. “We’ve done all that, sir. There’s really no more fat on our bones.”
Republicans have long championed increasing military spending. That began to change in 2010, when the tea-party wave ushered in a new generation of elected Republicans, including libertarians eager to curtail U.S. military involvement overseas and deficit hawks anxious to cut almost anything they could.
The shift has been particularly evident in the House. In July, 30 Republicans—a large number, by historical standards—voted for an amendment to cut $23 million from a nuclear-weapons program, which failed narrowly on the floor. Weeks later, Mr. Collins and 37 other Republicans voted to strip $3.5 billion from the Pentagon’s overseas operating budget, a bucket of money used to fund military operations in Afghanistan. The amendment passed.
In a similar vein, 120 Republicans voted in June to require congressional approval to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014—a sign that they are willing to back curbs on the military. The Democratic bill passed with 305 votes.
The change has longtime defense hawks grumbling. “There is such an emphasis on spending restraints, we’ve lost sight of [the military] to some degree,” said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). “It’s doing great damage to our national security.”
Late last month, 30 of the 34 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to top budget negotiators to warn them that “sequestration will be devastating to our Armed Forces.” The letter asked them to restore money for the Pentagon in exchange for longer-term cuts in mandatory spending programs, such as Medicare.
For now, though, it looks like party leaders are lining up with the deficit hawks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has repeatedly emphasized his support for long-term spending caps established by the Budget Control Act. During talks to reopen the government, Mr. McConnell offered Democrats more flexibility in meeting those limits, but he remains reluctant to raise the overall level of spending.
With some Democrats seeking new tax revenue in exchange for sparing the Pentagon, the Republicans’ willingness to accept military cuts strengthens their negotiating position on the 29-member budget conference committee that is charged with writing a plan to fund the government beyond Jan. 15, when its current funding expires.
While the driving force behind the shift inside the GOP has been the tea-party wave, other trends are at play, including the steady decline of military veterans serving in Congress. In 2002, for example, when Congress gave President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq, 131 House members had some military experience, according to a tally by Congressional Quarterly. The number is now down to 87.
A number of these House conservatives succeeded centrist Democrats with deep ties to the military. For instance, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) built his 2010 campaign around trying to blame then-House Budget Chairman John Spratt, a Democrat, for driving up the debt. Mr. Spratt had been a long-serving member of the House Armed Services Committee and had backed the initial invasion of Iraq.
Since coming to Congress, Mr. Mulvaney has introduced three measures to cut the Pentagon budget, including the one in July to trim $3.5 billion from overseas operations. He said his goal with that measure, which he offered with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), was to bring the bill more in line with what the president and the Pentagon requested, calling the account for overseas operations a “place to hide money.”
Mr. Collins, the Georgia congressman, exemplifies this new breed of Republican. The chaplain regularly attends events at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., and received the Meritorious Service Medal from the base commander in September. Despite his strong allegiance to the military, the first-year congressman believes Congress should do everything in its power to tackle deficits.
“As a member of the military, I see where the military can take cuts,” Mr. Collins said. “We’ve got to be smart in how we’re spending.”
The reservist warns, though, that there is only so much waste to cut, and that he would prefer restoring some money for the military in exchange for long-term cuts in mandatory spending programs.
That said, he rejects any talk of offsetting the cuts with new tax revenue. “We don’t need more revenue,” he said. “We’ve got to look at long-term spending.”