Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: A Pentagon team won’t be home early for Christmas. They’re the committee trying to anticipate how US defence will get more bang for its buck when there aren’t too many bucks. If Mitt Romney had made it in November, they wouldn’t be home late. He was promising so many dollar increases in all departments that the Pentagon would have been hard pressed to know what to spend it on. But Romney is yesterday’s sneeze. The guys at the Department of Defence have to deal with the current cold.
Most people in the United States agree times are hard. Some, and we’re talking millions of people here, think times have always been hard. Many won’t even get a pay-day loan. If they were Europeans, especially Brits, then they would be saying that the options on cuts in the defence budget were just too bad. You can’t trade a day’s F-16 fuel for a medium sized town’s food bill, but that’s about how much it would cost.
As STI London correspondent Henry Forth wrote recently, most folks in the UK want out of the Afghan war and want a claw-back on the military costs in that place to pay health care and education bills.
Given the state of these items here in the US, then the British as an example, would be guessing that their attitude to defence spending would be pretty universal – not a major priority when the needy are in greater need than before. It’s as if the Europeans have had enough of getting what they now think is America’s war and they don’t want to sign any more requisitions and cheques for those adventures.
On The Hill, that is the core debate. Republican politicians in this nation’s capital and a high percentage of Democrats would sign for major spending reductions in Medicare and Social Security. As for entitlements as in Medicaid, then the knife is sharpened. The reason is simple: you keep these budgets in the left hand column of the In Ledger and that means tax hikes. Democrats, by and large, see the inevitability of cuts but talk and write about balanced deficit reductions. Republicans don’t get the need for euphemisms. Republicans don’t do more taxes. Hell, ‘read my lips’, as the man said.
All seems simple. These are the politicians talking up votes. The good people strong, handsome and above average at one time – and not so long back – would barely question the dollar need for America to be strong. Today, that’s not the case. Just as some 70 per cent in a recent poll said keep the social budgets on some sort of financial pedestal, those same people now think hospital bills come before Pentagon spending. It is not a guns or butter dilemma as once it was. Yet it is true that medicine is keeping people alive for much longer than even twenty or thirty years back. The hard reality is that older people cost more. In a week when the American overall budget is clinging to the cliff and could fail, then the debate between tax hikes and fewer cuts gets stronger and so noisier and inclusive – so far.
Take the House Speaker, Republican John Boehner’s position. The White House was never going to let him get away with his debt ceiling fight while he was saying that Obama simply wasn’t getting serious about cutting spending. His stand-off could not of course have something to do with Boehner protecting his chances of being elected as Speaker on 3 January. Surely not. Surely.
So the noise from his brothers and sisters in the Senate is to give a little on the tax hikes for the rich. Not much, but enough. In response, instead of the two trillion dollars spending in the Pentagon Romney’s friends were suggesting, the bill might even then come down. He has already agreed apparently that he would take a chance on defence cuts if that stopped higher taxes coming to the floor.
How does this fry in the Republican pan? The Republicans do not want to agree but it is a way out of the budget predicament. All this means that major defence projects could be rolled over so that they don’t show up as quickly as was promised. The pork-barrelling won’t be a problem. No legislator is going to go home to face a military industry shut down on his territory. But what he will do when he comes back after Christmas is this: he will see the next draft of the Defence Department’s plans for the next spending year and he will flip them into pending. The defence budget, with a murmur of approval from the sidewalk that will reach inside the Senate and the House, will not be approved. Nor will it be sent back. It will simply go into that folder marked debate, hearing and see how it plays in the mid-terms.
Meanwhile, the social bills will scramble through. But the people are speaking. Obama’s global strategy is best done with rhetoric for the moment. Go to war maybe, but go with what you’re standing up in. That’s the message the lawmakers and the Pentagon will be mulling over this Yuletide. It won’t be the first time. Defence budget flipping is not a new pastime. But the world isn’t a safer place in spite of at least two major and body-bagging wars. It’ll be a brave man who cuts the defence credit rate.