Possible action in Syria has become the most recent excuse du jour for Pentagon boosters intent on abandoning deficit reduction that Congress and the Administration agreed to in 2011. There are smart and sensible ways to achieve the $1.2 trillion of savings mandated by the Budget Control Act. Conveniently saying “just kidding” about deficit reduction would accomplish little other than reaffirming to our creditors and the American taxpayer that Washington is not serious about the debt. And any decision to intervene in Syria should be made on the merits of that alone, not through horse-trading over budget decisions.
After saying it on the Sunday shows, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal setting out his arguments for his decision to condition his vote for the use of American force in Syria on the repeal of the mandatory budget cuts, commonly known as sequestration.
“Simply put, the blessings of prosperity obligate the U.S. to enforce the peace it seeks,” says McKeon about his support, in theory, for striking Syria in response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, McKeon adds: “Americans should be uncomfortable with the notion of deploying a depleted military to combat without a commitment on the part of the president and Congress to restore its funding.”
What Chairman McKeon glosses over is that the Pentagon received $527.5 billion for fiscal year 2013, plus an additional $89.2 billion for overseas contingency operations. In 2021, at the end of the Budget Control Act’s reign of budgetary terror, the Pentagon budget will then be the same size it was in 2007, six years into a military buildup. No one called it a hollowed out force then.
Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), referring to civilians at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in his district who were forced to take six unpaid days off this summer, says: “now the Department of Defense is telling the American public that it has enough money to take us into this conflict in Syria. How do you explain that to those people who lost wages?”
All of this ignores the history of both the sequestration and emergency spending. While Rep. McKeon and other members are happy to blame the Administration for slashing military funding, everyone knows it takes two to tango. Congress – including Chairman McKeon – voted for the Budget Control Act and the President signed it. When it comes to covering the cost of any potential military action against Syria, Congress has certainly demonstrated its willingness to pass emergency supplemental spending bills when it sees fit. The $50.5 billion bill in response to Super Storm Sandy is a good example (which included billions for various goodies unrelated to actual storm damage, incidentally).
Let’s face it. The budgetary pain from sequestration and the budget caps imposed by sequestration is real. Because that’s the way policymakers intended it to be. It was supposed to be so awful, so painful that lawmakers would find $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction elsewhere. It turns out that for policymakers the only thing worse than meat axe budget cuts, is making tough decisions about where to cut.
The problem is that no one wants to see their priorities suffer during the belt-tightening Congress has imposed in response to public pressure over our spiraling national debt, which goes a long way in explaining how we got here in the first place. It’s understandable for everyday citizens to resist cutting spending or eliminating tax breaks that affect them personally, but members of Congress are elected to lead. From tax reform to foreign policy, almost everyone agrees we are spending too much compared to what we are taking in, yet compromise on spending and revenue remains a bridge too far for Congress. Their unwillingness to make tough choices has left us with the so-called “meat-cleaver” approach to budgeting in the form of sequestration.
If nothing else, the current debate about Syria shows how these budgetary problems hang over everything Congress does, and until the parties find a way to get beyond this state of perpetual fiscal brinksmanship, we are in for more of the same, whatever the issue may be.