When I argued here that the House should pass a bill exempting defense from the coming sequester, I didn’t have space to fully explain how that will help conservatives cut spending. Here’s how:
Right now, there is a bit of a split on the right about whether or not the sequester itself is something to fear. I think it’s safe to say that most conservatives, even ones (like me) who think that at least some savings can be found from the Pentagon budget, strongly balk at the idea of cuts of the massive size and the indiscriminate nature of the sequester. Ever since at least the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, conservatives have always said that the first role of the federal government is national defense, and that the legitimate needs of defense should determine the level of spending rather than that an arbitrary goal for spending restraint should determine the strength of our forces. As a primary function of national government, indeed as its most sacred obligation, national security is too important to hold hostage to unrelated politics.
It is also true that a number of powerful Republican senators, including John McCain (love him or loathe him, he’s a rather essential figure in these debates, without whom we have no chance of limiting the size of government overall), have indicated they will never abide the levels and types of defense cuts that sequestration would involve — specifically because, in this case, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is absolutely right that cuts of this magnitude would “devastate” our interests and be “disastrous” for the country.
On the other hand, there are some conservative budget cutters who think that all other goals should take a back seat to that of cutting the deficit and debt. They are willing — and in some libertarian cases, eager — to see defense take any hit necessary in order to cut overall spending levels. They want to refuse to negotiate at all over the sequester, and let the chips fall where they may.
The problem is, the cut-everything caucus cannot win in Congress if they lose the support of the Reaganite defense boosters. CAN…NOT…WIN. They just don’t have the votes.
What they need is a way to hold onto the Reagan-defense crowd as partners. My proposal provides a way.
First, to be clear… as a former House Appropriations staffer (while we were cutting real, and large, dollar amounts from domestic discretionary spending), I know the arithmetic and procedures well enough to be convinced that domestic cuts of the magnitude called for in sequestration won’t actually cause much, or any, damage to the civic order. I am perfectly willing, indeed eager, to see those cuts happen. Cutting the debt is clearly important enough for such a stand. So, the goal is to protect the sequestration imperative, either via sequestration itself or via savings of the exact same size from the same group of programs, but with the savings achieved via alligator skinning knife instead of a machete. (In other words, via targeted savings of deep size rather than across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts.)
With that understood, the situation is this: If the House passes the bill exempting defense from the sequester, it lays down a marker that defense remains a priority. It also allows House Reaganites at least the chance to vote to demonstrate that priority, and allows senators at least to weigh in verbally to that effect and to demand that Harry Reid allow a vote on the same.
With that marker laid down, everybody on the right can be united in the next step — which is to do nothing. If Congress does nothing, sequestration happens automatically. The Oval Office Occupier can yell all he wants, but he has no legal or legislative leverage. No action means big cuts. And even if Obama and the Senate Democrats haven’t allowed defense to be separated from the domestic sequestration fight, despite the political hit they might take for doing so, at least the McCains of the world will know that the public has been shown, decisively, that Republicans still stand for a strong defense. The way the Washington budget process works, they will know that they will have a chance later on to come back and restore those parts of the defense cuts that are over-damaging — and that having made the point on defense now will give them political advantages later that will help them succeed.
If, in the meantime, defense is weakened and defense-related jobs are lost nationwide, the fault will belong entirely to Obama and the left. They will have been handed the chance to avoid the problem, and declined.
So…. by exempting defense from sequestration (not necessarily from at least some later budget caps, but from the automatic club of sequestration), Republicans will strengthen their hand in achieving the domestic savings we crave.
Meanwhile, by making the point that unlike subjects should not be lumped together in massive. up-or-down packages, conservative leaders will have laid the groundwork for other necessary tactical shifts, which will involve avoiding big, scary brinksmanship in favor of choosing smaller fights on politically popular, carefully chosen, discrete issues. When conservatives are blamed for putting the whole country on the edge of an abyss, we lose. When we make fights more specific and understandable — on bridges to nowhere, on rain-firest museums in the American farm belt, on federal workers getting salary and benefits hugely more lucrative than private-sector workers in similar-level jobs, etcetera — conservatives win.