The debt ceiling deal framework released by the Speaker’s office (in powerpoint form) does a great job of spinning a troubling bill. Now to be clear, I am a debt-ceiling raise proponent, and I supported both bills that passed the House. I support the goal of cutting spending in two tranches, and I support automatic cuts that enforce discipline on the political actors to reduce spending commensurate with the debt limit increase.
But the “triggers” that are intended to create incentives for all parties to achieve a solution by Thanksgiving create a no-win scenario for Republicans in November. To wit:
- The Medicare cuts that would go into effect if the Joint Committee’s (“JC”) recommended cuts are not enacted are supposed to scare Democrats into accept the JC’s proposal. Not so. The cuts to Medicare don’t reduce benefits — they reduce reimbursements to doctors and hospitals. So rather than require seniors to pay something for their health care and thereby make better decisions, the Medicare cuts would drive more health care providers away from serving Medicare patients, making health care less available for seniors. No cost-reductions there – seniors will still get care, but they’ll have to drive farther and wait longer to get it. That’s rationing by a thousand cuts. So if Republicans fail to accept the JC proposal, they will give Democrats another talking point in their Mediscare campaign (Tea Party radicals, not Obamacare = health care rationing for seniors) without saving a dime in actual health care costs.
- Despite representing around 20% of the federal budget, defense will comprise 50 cents of every dollar in the “trigger” cuts that occur if the JC’s recommendations are not passed by Congress. If ever there was a sign that the Democratic Party has abandoned national security as a political issue, this is it. Prominent figures across the center-right, from Allen West to John Bolton to Joe Lieberman, have sounded the alarm against these cuts, which would not come with any fundamental restructuring of our vision of defense policy. We’d still be in Iraq (and losing ground). We’d still be in Afghanistan (but leaving too soon). We’d still be in Libya (for some unknown reason). And we’d still be defending Europe from a superpower that we helped vanquish two decades ago. But we’d be doing all of these tasks, which no other military in the world could handle simultaneously, with less armor, less ammunition, fewer soldiers, and less high-tech weaponry. Think we’ve got a peace dividend to cash? Consider the following graph.
And then consider that Democrats have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to strike a $750 billion hole in defense and blame it on the Tea Party, merely by refusing to make further cuts in spending. Is there anything easier for a Democrat than refusing to cut the national budget?
Why in the world, then, would Democrats ever be serious in trying to achieve a consensus for spending cuts in November? The alternative to military and Medicare cuts are domestic programs, precisely the things they refused to cut all summer in the face of debt default. The automatic cuts are great for them politically, and the Medicare cuts can be undone once Democrats regain control over the budgetary process (to cheers from the Left and seniors, who will come back “home” to the Democrats). The defense cuts, however, will be permanent — they will enrage the Right, starve our military of resources, and all but demand a pullback from “overseas contingency operations” that Obama can now say he is forced to end due to budgetary concerns.
This deal is a blueprint for Democratic political revival over the next 15 months. Do not throw the Democrats into that briar patch, Republicans. Admiral Ackbar knows best.