Overall, the debt deal struck yesterday between President Obama and congressional leaders seems to be a favorable one for conservatives. There are a few downsides, though.
One larger-scale problem is that the plan substitutes near-term discretionary spending cuts for long-term entitlement reforms (with some promise of marginal entitlement reforms later this year). Although this was unavoidable because of the political demands of the parties, it’s worth reflecting on. The deal won’t come close to resolving the long-term debt problem, and it may not even prevent a credit ratings downgrade. The only reason that the cuts are coming from discretionary spending is because that’s the lowest-priority spending for both parties. Although there’s nothing objectionable about eventually returning to Eisenhower-era levels of discretionary spending (as this plan will, according to Obama), we’re not also limiting the government to its Eisenhower-era number of activities. We’re just funding all of the same programs less.
Another, more specific criticism of this plan is the amount of defense spending cuts included. It calls for $350 billion of cuts immediately, and includes a trigger that could cut up to $500 billion more if the two parties are unable to compromise to meet certain deficit-reduction criteria on time.
As Sen. Tom Coburn has pointed out in his budget proposal, cutting fully $1 trillion from the defense budget over 10 years would “put the Pentagon back on the level of annual funding it had just five years ago at the height of the Iraq surge.” In other words, it should be eminently feasible to cuts $850 billion.
The problem is that significant defense spending cuts are going to require changing the missions of the U.S. military at some point. We can’t plan to engage in every Libyan war that arises, for instance, while planning to seriously reduce military spending. If Obama is planning to rethink the role of the U.S. in the world, then the defense savings outlined in the deal (about half the savings overall, not counting interest on the debt) could be feasible. Otherwise, they seem illusory. Bear in mind that the $500 billion in defense cuts included in the trigger are, effectively, leverage for Obama and Democrats to use against Republicans, even though Obama is the one determining U.S. foreign policy. Something is a little backward here.
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