The budget deal’s central achievement: protecting America’s military strength
Remember 1986? Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Dionne Warwick was topping the charts, and movie audiences swooned as Tom Cruise romanced Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. Children born in 1986 are now adults having children of their own. So it is sobering to realize that 1986 was also the last year in which a divided Congress — a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, to be precise — was able to reach a budget agreement. To the surprise of many, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a leading light among conservative Republicans, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a savvy Democrat with a populist streak, reached a modest budget deal at the start of this week that eased the rigid caps on discretionary spending imposed by sequestration in the short term, in exchange for more mandatory spending restraint over the long term.
Almost immediately, influential conservative lawmakers, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, declared their opposition to the deal, as did influential conservative groups like Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth. For a brief moment, it looked as though the GOP’s right flank would choose another government shutdown over what many saw as a half-hearted compromise. But instead the House passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 by a margin of 332-94, with 62 Republicans voting “no.” Assuming the Senate also passes the deal, the country will be spared a government shutdown until at least the fall of 2015.
To many rank-and-file Republican members, and in particular to those representing vulnerable House seats, this must come as a relief. In recent weeks, President Obama’s approval ratings have sharply declined. A recent Quinnipiac survey finds that only 38 percent of voters approve of the president. Moreover, they prefer Republican over Democratic House candidates by 41 percent to 38 percent, a marked improvement for the GOP. It seems that while the government shutdown damaged Republicans, a steady drumbeat of negative news coverage surrounding Obamacare implementation has given the GOP breathing room. Another government shutdown could reverse these gains and give the president and his allies the upper hand.
Yet what is good for Republicans from vulnerable districts isn’t necessarily what is best for Republicans from safe seats, where the chief political threat is from conservative primary challengers. These were the members who pressed for confrontation with the White House during the last shutdown fight, and it is these members, by and large, who voted against the latest deal. It just so happens that fewer of their Republican comrades in the House are willing to indulge them this time around. And John Boehner, the beleaguered Speaker of the House, voiced his frustration in a brief statement in which he accused the conservative groups that opposed the deal of “misleading their followers,” and of having “lost all credibility.” Suffice it to say, Boehner hasn’t made many friends on the right with these remarks, but one wonders if they were calculated to buck up members of his caucus who resent having been dragged into the shutdown a few short months ago.
The battle now shifts to the Senate, where a strikingly large number of Republican senators are balking on the budget deal, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a primary challenge in 2014 that has focused his attention. Some of the Republicans who oppose the deal are party stalwarts whom you’d normally expect to stand with Ryan and Boehner, like Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, but who object to pension cuts aimed at non-elderly military retirees. Senate critics of the deal intend to filibuster it, and since the filibuster has only been ended for judicial nominations, supporters of the deal will have to rally 60 votes to even get a chance to vote on it.
Sen. Rand Paul, McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Republican, has been particularly harsh in condemning the deal. In a new Breitbart.com column, Paul characterizes the deal as a “surrender” and he insists no one interested in responsible governance could support it, a clever rhetorical nod in the direction of those who criticize the Tea Party faithful for their recklessness. Paul, like Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seems to see the budget deal as an opportunity to put down a marker for intra-party fights to come. The fact that the deal still has a decent shot at passing lowers the stakes for opponents, who can take credit for opposing it while not bearing the consequences of its failure. And if the deal really does fail, all eyes will be on the Republicans who oppose it, who will presumably benefit from the polarization and the campaign contributions that will follow. In other words, opposing the deal is a win-win for Republican senators looking to protect their right flanks and to raise their profile.
What has been lost in this gamesmanship is what I take to be the central achievement of the budget deal, which is that it will shield the U.S. military from deep cuts to investments in future war-fighting capabilities. The chief political case against the defense sequester rests on its economic impact. The Bipartisan Policy Center, working with Macroeconomic Advisors, LLC, found that the defense sequester would lead to the loss of 640,000 jobs. But if the defense sequester really did reduce wasteful spending, the job losses would be outweighed by broader gains as capital was reallocated across the economy.
The real problem with the defense sequester is that as much as Republicans dislike Democrats and vice versa, the much larger threat facing the U.S. is that China, and to a lesser extent other rising regional powers, are rapidly developing precision-guided munitions and other technologies that can degrade our ability to access the western Pacific and the Gulf, regions that are central to our economic well-being and to our security interests. The spending the defense sequester targets is not fat, like rapidly-rising personnel costs, but rather muscle, which is to say investments in technologies that can counter China’s ability to target our aircraft carriers and our defense installations in East Asia. It is not at all surprising that Paul, who like his father Ron Paul embraces the idea that the United States should engage in strategic retreat, has no qualms about defense cuts. What is surprising is that Republicans who recognize the importance of America’s global leadership role, like McCain, Graham, and Rubio, among others, seem so indifferent to how their actions could erode our military strength.
PHOTO: The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain sails in formation during exercise Foal Eagle 2013 in waters west of the Korean peninsula in this March 21, 2013 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes/Handout