As a Republican member of Congress whose mixed-in-every-way Colorado district includes Aurora, suburbs of Denver, and a large Air Force Base, Mike Coffman has long argued that the nation must make cuts in the Defense Department budget.
This week, Coffman will propose legislation to cut $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade through a range of 15 measures that include reducing programs “which do not contribute significantly to military capability,” using local civilian contractors instead of military personnel for “commercial-type activities at military bases,” lowering bureaucratic head count through attrition, and reducing the number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe.
This man is no RINO, and no naïf on defense issues. In addition to having an American Conservative Union ranking of 95 in his four years in Congress and serving on the House Armed Services Committee, Coffman has served in both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps (in active duty and reserve capacities in each).
He volunteered to join the Army when he was 17 years old. And in more recent years Coffman voluntarily gave up safe, comfortable jobs in Colorado government, both while serving as a legislator and later as State Treasurer, to serve in combat in Kuwait and later helping to establish local governments in Iraq.
Today, Rep. Coffman believes -- or at least hopes -- that the sequester gives him “leverage to try to get these reforms done.” He doesn’t have illusions that his reforms will pass in the roughly 100 hours before the sequester hits, but rather that over coming months he will be able to pass, whether as amendments or stand-alone legislation, changes that replace across-the-board cuts with specific cuts aimed to save nearly as much money.
Responding to an inquiry for this article, Coffman explained: “The greatest threat to our national security is our unsustainable debt. We need to reduce government spending in all areas to include defense. The problem with sequestration is that it cuts Defense across-the-board regardless whether a program is vital to our national security or is something that should have been eliminated a long time ago. As a Marine Corps combat veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I know that we can take a more pragmatic approach to cutting defense spending without compromising national security.”
Coffman holds the least safe seat in Colorado following a 2012 redistricting that removed heavily Republican areas and added Democratic-leaning areas to the state’s 6th Congressional District. With the district housing Buckley Air Force Base and many defense technology companies, it takes particular courage and subtlety for Coffman to thread the sequester issue needle. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already running cynical web ads -- after all, the defense part of sequestration is the only part they like -- trying to tar Coffman with the sequester if it causes layoffs in defense-related businesses in the district. They are preparing to spend money on TV ads, aiming to beat Coffman in 2014 following the announcement that former Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Andrew Romanoff, will run for the seat.
Coffman has been for cutting defense spending since before it was cool, at least among Republicans. So while some may suggest that his proposal is an attempt to appear moderate because of his political situation, in fact Coffman has been singing this tune for several years.
When I interviewed Coffman on my radio show in December 2010, he discussed how our “top-heavy” military sometimes acts “as if their mission is supporting the Pentagon” rather than projecting American power. He noted that the Navy “has more admirals than ships.” And, then as now, he questioned the need for having so many U.S. troops overseas as well as addressing the need to address defense pork. He’s not the first to say it, but Coffman is absolutely right: “I don’t see defense as a jobs program.” Great policy but dangerous politics.
While Coffman has said that he opposes the sequester in its current structure, he consistently supports the “right sizing of our defense budget.” Too many Republicans, however, at least until recent days, have been sequester Chicken Littles, adding their voices to ridiculous claims that the sequester must reduce national security, giving credence to the Navy's own version of the Washington Monument strategy in which it is keeping an aircraft carrier in port instead of sending it to the Persian Gulf.
As Byron York points out, the sequester’s cuts “are only to the rate of growth for the defense budget in coming years. They are not actual cuts that make spending decline…[D]efense spending will increase in every year, even with sequestration cuts.”
There are Republicans, especially the most unkosher pork fiends such as Senator Thad Cochran (MS), who refuse to cut defense spending even for obviously wasteful projects because they fear it will impact jobs in their states or districts. There may be a few -- Mitt Romney certainly pretended to be in this camp -- who believe that our defense needs require ever-growing military spending, that there was almost no ability to save substantially within current DoD expenditures. (The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol is apparently still in that camp, but then he was also the one who said on Fox News Sunday during the fiscal cliff debate that Republicans should “take Obama’s offer” to raise taxes on upper-income Americans.)
And particularly during the initial onset of Republican sequesterphobia, complaining about the pending cuts was a mindless reaction from politicians who believe that being Republican means never having to say you’re sorry for a dollar spent at the Pentagon.
At least, even those members’ errors were not due to the cynical assumption of American stupidity embodied by Democrats talking about cutting air traffic controllers and meat inspectors, teachers and policemen, federal prosecutors and disaster relief. In a dubious pantheon of Democrat scare tactics, perhaps the most cynical was Monday’s implication by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano that the sequester raises the risk of a terrorist attack on American soil.
Republicans must be careful not to argue flatly against any cuts to the defense budget. They must not make the same mistake that Mitt Romney and others made during the 2012 elections when they criticized President Obama for cutting Medicare, when the real criticism should have been that cuts to Medicare were wasted in the sink hole of Obamacare. In other words, Republicans must not box themselves out of being able to support critically needed future budget cuts by complaining when, even if by accident, Obama cuts spending in some part of government.
There is no branch, department, or office of government that could not continue to perform its duties, and perhaps perform them better, with a small budget cut and the knowledge that unlike the usual operation of government, a lack of results will not be rewarded with more money.
The good news is that -- unlike Democrats who want to replace the sequester with tax hikes -- Republicans generally have come around to a sensible position, both in terms of policy and politics, to allow the Pentagon to reallocate the cuts as long as the total amount cut remains in place. They want to give flexibility that the sequester-creating legislation doesn’t, but don’t expect Democrats to go along with it because they, as usual, would much prefer having the issue to having a solution, and they don’t mind heavy cuts to defense spending.
Mike Coffman’s suggestion is better than giving the Pentagon blanket flexibility in where they cut, given -- as Jed Babbin pointed out on these pages yesterday -- that this is an administration willing to sacrifice millions of DoD dollars at the altar of the green goddess of the cult of climate change. And thus Democrats will oppose Coffman as well.
When even Buck McKeon (R-CA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, seems to have had that epiphany, getting through the nearly impenetrable cloud of turf-protecting power-hunger that characterizes committee chairmen of both parties at all times, the message is clear.
When even the New York Times mentions the possibility that Democrats have misunderestimated Republicans’ resolve and perhaps the strength of the Republican position, the message is even clearer.
The fact that Barack Obama and his henchmen are trying so hard to scare the American people about the sequester means that even if the “meat axe” approach to budget cutting is far from optimal, it is today’s best realistic option for Republicans both in terms of policy and politics.
Take the sequester, accept it (if not cheer it) as a good if imperfect start, remind voters how little it actually cuts, and then get on with the business of passing smart legislation and showing that Obama and Senate Democrats are the real problem. If John Boehner doesn’t have the courage to bring rationality to cutting defense spending, let Mike Coffman take the lead.