By Kate Nocera
It’s been an article of faith for the GOP: Thou shalt not cut defense spending.
But with the sequester threatening to slash hundreds of billions from the Pentagon budget, a surprising number of Republicans are ready to violate that commandment.
The sequester cuts, they say, are better than no cuts at all.
This new generation of conservatives in Congress, freed from the ideologies of the Cold War and Reagan-era defense buildups, is pushing Republicans to buck their tradition and put defense on the chopping block in pursuit of a truly smaller federal government.
The group includes GOP rookies like Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas who simply aren’t concerned by the blunt slash to defense spending as long as it accomplishes the goal of deficit reduction. Others, like Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, aren’t particularly thrilled with the way the sequester cuts are made or the way the debt deal was done to begin with, but they’re ready to talk seriously about how to make cuts to mandatory military spending. And South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, one of the most conservative members of the House, led a group of Republicans and liberal Democrats that sent a letter to the White House and congressional leaders calling on them to include serious defense cuts in a fiscal cliff deal.
Mulvaney, who teamed up with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) earlier this year to pass an amendment that froze defense spending, said the sequester is the wrong way to cut the Pentagon’s budget and believes there are alternative ways to come up with the cuts. But, he said, “the only thing worse [than the sequester] would be to not cut spending at all.” Mulvaney has been outspoken about the need to find savings in the defense budget.
“If we don’t take defense spending seriously, it undermines our credibility on other spending issues,” Mulvaney told POLITICO. “When we speak candidly about a spending problem and we then seek to puff up the defense budget and it leads people to believe that we aren’t taking the problem seriously.”
These conservatives joined Congress as the U.S. has been trying to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the more libertarian idea of scaling back U.S. involvement in the world has caught on with some of the congressional rookies.
In an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, Gosar argued that Congress needs to let the sequester cuts go through.
“We either have a spending problem or we don’t,” Gosar said in an interview. “Going back to the military budget of 2009 — we’re still going to have the biggest military in the world. If we can’t go over this bump, we’ll never be able to get anything big done.”
“A little pain allows the medicine to go down,” the former dentist added. “We’ll at least be treating the problem in order for us to get well again.”
Other fiscal hawks have a problem not with the cuts per se but with the fact that they are made across the board. Still, they are open to looking at tightening the Pentagon’s purse strings.
“The problem with the sequester is not the cuts, but how the cuts are made. It cuts things that are not necessary at the same level it cuts things that quite honestly are necessary,” said Georgia’s Scott. “We’ve been operating under continuing resolutions for years now in this country and that means that we’ve maintained things that we probably should have gotten rid of a long time ago; that you simply can’t get rid of in a continuing resolution.”
Not everyone on the right is ready to break with party tradition on defense.
Another Georgia House member, Rep. Paul Broun, who has advocated eliminating the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, says no cuts to the military should be made.
“Defense cuts are going to be tragic for our national security. … We’re cutting our defense into muscle and bone,” he said of the sequester. “We need to be building up our military and not cutting it.”
But Amash, whose outlook on foreign policy is decidedly more libertarian, called his party’s unwillingness to even look at cutting defense spending “frightening.”
“I think they are willing to raise taxes to avoid defense cuts. I think they are willing to take really bad deals to avoid defense cuts,” he said at a Heritage Foundation event last week. “I’m not calling for some massive reduction in defense spending … but they aren’t even willing to look at reducing it to George W. Bush levels.”
“A party that’s not even willing to look at that, that’s a frightening scenario,” he added.
Amash was one of a quartet of House Republican lawmakers removed from committees for going against their leadership. He remarked at the Heritage event that he thinks a key similarity he shares with the other booted members is their “positions on military spending that are a little more open to compromise.”
Huelskamp, the Kansan who was kicked off the Budget and Agriculture committees, said he was baffled that Republicans would try to undo the sequester when they had agreed to the debt deal in the first place.
“It was told to us in the Budget Committee that the sequester was never going to happen,” Huelskamp said. “What do you mean it’s never going to happen? That was the whole deal.”
He said it would be “pretty difficult to trust” GOP leaders to cut a deal with President Barack Obama to come up with cuts that would be acceptable to replace the sequester after “they all agreed that the cuts the last time were all just a mirage to raise the debt ceiling.”
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who voted for the debt deal that eventually led to the sequester, said cuts must be made to the mandatory side of the ledger as well as to the Pentagon “to make a long-term impact” on the debt.
“The White House seems to think the problem is the sequester instead of the problem being the debt, I’m trying to say the problem is the debt,” he said. “The sequester is just one vehicle of many that’s going to have to be used to get out of our debt and deficit. But the end of the war is not a way to turn off the sequester.”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) put his opinion on the sequester simply.
“No cuts would be worse for the American economy,” he said.