Over the Horizon: Debt Ceiling Defense Cuts Could Get Messy

Over the Horizon: Debt Ceiling Defense Cuts Could Get Messy

The new debt ceiling deal between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans included one major Republican concession: deep cuts in defense. The first set of defense budget cuts will amount to $350 billion over 10 years, but the deal includes a triggering mechanism that may tack on another $500 billion or so in the same time period. After a decade of war and more than a decade of sustained defense budget growth, this would represent a major shift in how the United States spends money on its military.

In one sense, the decision to cut the defense budget makes a remarkable amount of sense. The United States outspends all peer competitors and maintains close alliances with most of the world's major military powers. Neither Russia nor Iran represent plausible military threats, and only the looming rise of China poses a conventional military problem, even if forecasting real improvements in Chinese military capabilities remains difficult. However, interest group politics, and particularly the influence of the defense-spending constituency, have made cutting defense very difficult. Now, this same constituency may make the actual process of cutting bloody.

Two weeks ago, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution argued that cutting the defense budget was "irresponsible," "dangerous," and "also cowardly, since defense has no domestic constituency." Of course, it is absurd to say that the defense budget lacks a domestic constituency. Indeed, the Pentagon represents several layers of such a constituency, starting with the bureaucracy of military management. This bureaucracy, composed of thousands of civil servants and military officers, holds great influence in Congress and in the executive branch. Cuts to defense spending threaten their influence as well as their jobs, and are generally resisted with whatever bureaucratic and ideological weapons are handy.

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