November 21, 2011
Republicans Are Endangering National Security
By William Cohen
It was good news two weeks ago that Republican leaders had finally crossed the antitax line they had drawn in the sand, by offering $300 billion in net tax increases as part of a debt-reduction deal. But the news was not good enough. The amount offered did not approach bridging the gap with Democrats, and Republicans needed to go much farther to avert the possibility of disastrous cuts to our military strength.
Their failure to do so is directly responsible for Monday's failure of the "supercommittee," created by Congress as part of the debt-limit deal. Its task was to put forward a bipartisan package of spending cuts and tax hikes to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion, and to meet its deadline early this week. Unless there is a last-minute change of heart, the failure points to draconian cuts that include deep slashes in military spending. They would come into effect automatically, drying up funds needed for defense as early as 2013.
Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Republican co-chairman of the committee, declared last week that Republicans had "gone as far as we feel we can go" on tax increases. And it is not clear that Republican leaders could sell even the $300 billion tax increase to their rank and file. On Nov. 4, a group of 33 Republican senators sent a letter to members of the committee warning that any deal must have "no net tax increase."
In the House, members of the Republican Study Committee circulated a letter insisting that "repeal of any tax credit or deduction must be offset with an equal or greater tax credit."
I have long been concerned that my party's rigid antitax ideology is harming the fiscal health of our nation. Now it is harming our national security as well, as cuts in defense spending on a calamitous scale are about to be triggered. Congressional Republicans need to look back at this sad episode and decide: Do they care more about keeping "a no tax pledge" or giving our troops the tools they need to protect the nation?
Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta is already cutting deeply into the Pentagon's budget, reducing spending by $465 billion over the coming decade. He has indicated that he plans to cut areas once considered untouchable, like military medical and retirement benefits. Savings might also be found in commissaries and exchanges, tuition assistance and duplicative family-support programs.
But Secretary Panetta has testified that adding another $600 billion in automatic cuts — which are now likely with the failure of the super committee — "will truly devastate our national defense." Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concurred, testifying that such draconian cuts "would cause self-inflicted and potentially irrevocable wounds to our national security."
Here is what the committee's failure is expected to mean:
The Navy is likely to mothball 60 ships, including two carrier battle groups — a possibility that led Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, to testify that the cuts could "impact the fleet for 20 to 50 years." The Air Force might have to give up one-third of its fighters and a quarter of its long-range bombers, calling into question our nuclear deterrent. The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, testified that the Air Force "may not be able to overcome dire consequences." And the Army is likely to have to give up nearly a third of its Army Maneuver Battalions — which is why the Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, has warned that the cuts would leave us with "an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk." The cuts would also decimate the Marine Corps, leaving it "below the end strength level that's necessary to support even one major contingency," the service's commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, has warned.
Is this what my fellow Republicans want?
Secretary Panetta challenged the committee to "do the right thing." Unfortunately, its members had little incentive to do so. Because the across-the-board cuts are delayed until 2013, the assumption seems to be that Republicans will gain a majority in both Houses of Congress and can move to restore the cuts in defense, while replacing them with cuts in other discretionary programs.
But what if President Obama is still in the White House come 2013? He would have to veto such legislation. And even if he is no longer president, the military and those in the private sector can't be left hanging for a year while the politics sorts itself out. According to Admiral Greenert, a failure by the committee would force the Navy to "end procurement programs and begin laying off civilian personnel in fiscal year 2012 to ensure we are within control levels" by January 2013. The same would be true for the other services.
Moreover, leaving the threat of such enormous cuts unresolved would send a signal of doubt to allies and adversaries alike about America's resolve or ability to meet our commitments. The last four American presidents have sent American troops into conflicts that no one anticipated before they took office; whoever wins the 2012 election could face similarly unexpected emergencies.
To solve our fiscal crisis, we need both parties to put aside their differences for the good of the country. For Republicans, that means they need to compromise on taxes. Our national security, and the men and women of our military, may now pay a very high price for their refusal to do so.
William S. Cohen has served as defense secretary and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is now chairman and chief executive officer of The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.