Opinion

Reihan Salam

The budget deal’s central achievement: protecting America’s military strength

Reihan Salam
Dec 13, 2013 19:47 UTC

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.

Fighting threats in the age of austerity

Reihan Salam
Nov 13, 2012 17:36 UTC

Now that President Obama has been reelected, he faces a number of basic questions about the future of America’s national security strategy. The most immediate of these concerns how the president will address the deep cuts to defense expenditures that will be triggered under last year’s Budget Control Act if congressional Republicans and Democrats can’t reach an agreement on a deficit deal. Answering this question requires a broader sense of the threats we face and what we ought to do about them.

When compared to the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet empire had nuclear weapons trained on virtually every inch of U.S. soil, it is fair to say that the world is a much less dangerous place for Americans, and we shouldn’t forget it. But when compared to the relative peace and security, Islamic terrorism notwithstanding, we’ve enjoyed in the two decades since the Soviet collapse, there is good reason to believe that the threat level is increasing. This is happening at the same time that sluggish economic growth and rising social expenditures are squeezing America’s ability to pay for an enormous military establishment.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, America’s national security conversation has focused primarily on the threat of mass-casualty terrorism. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been devoted by the public and private sectors to harden domestic targets, with no small success. A fundamental problem, however, is that a free society will always be vulnerable to conventional terrorist attacks, which can be executed by disaffected individuals as well as by highly-trained violent extremists. And while we can harden one set of targets, like airplanes and airports, there will always be softer targets for terrorists to exploit. Moreover, conventional terrorist attacks, as horrifying as they may be, are much less of a threat to public safety in the United States than, say, traffic accidents. John Mueller, a provocative political scientist at Ohio State University, has observed that far fewer Americans died in 2001 from transnational terrorism than from peanut allergies, yet the U.S. government has yet to declare war on peanuts. As awful as it sounds, the best approach to conventional terrorism might be for Americans to allow the intelligence services to do the difficult, painstaking work of containing it while accepting that it will be part of our future in a violent world.

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