The U.S. House Armed Services Committee can no longer afford to look at the defense budget in isolation, according to Rep. Adam Smith, who serves as the top Democrat on the panel. To do so is to ignore the gravity of the country’s debt problem, Smith, D-Wash., told an audience at Rand Corp. on March 29.
Directing his comments at some of his colleagues on the committee, Smith said it is unwise to take the narrow view that the committee’s responsibilities do not extend beyond the Defense Department and its budget.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., has vowed to reverse the first tranche of defense cuts that were enacted as part of the Budget Control Act last summer, saying they pose a risk to national security.
“There are many who argue that the overall budget deficit picture — taxes and entitlements, and how that all comes together — really doesn’t have anything to do with us,” Smith said. “It’s my opinion that if you’re on the Armed Services Committee, we certainly have obligations that go beyond that as members of Congress first of all, but even as a member of the Armed Services Committee, we are responsible for national security matters.”
Because the country’s debt and deficit problems directly threaten the country’s national security, they must be part of the committee’s consideration of the defense budget, he said. Not only are members of Congress ignoring the problem, but for the most part, the American public is also in denial, he said.
When polled on individual programs, from defense spending to education, Americans don’t want to cut anything and no one wants to raise taxes, Smith said.
But the size of today’s fiscal problems requires both spending cuts — to discretionary and mandatory programs — and tax increases, Smith said.
The most recent estimate for this year’s budget deficit, the gap between revenues raised and money spent, is $1.2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. To close this gap would take a 38 percent reduction to the overall federal budget, according to Smith.
Although defense spending accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending, it is roughly 20 percent of the overall budget.
“If you are 19 percent of a budget that is 38 percent out of whack, the odds are you’re going to have to do something,” Smith said.
Defense is part of the problem just like every other part of the budget, he said.
“My one goal out of all of this is to try to penetrate the denial about the situation we’re in where the deficit is concerned,” Smith said. “We are still having those arguments about ‘you can’t cut this program; you can’t cut that program’ in isolation. If we don’t start looking at the big picture, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
During his speech, Smith applauded the Pentagon for coming up with a plan that fits within the budget imposed on it through the Budget Control Act.
The Pentagon is working to cut $487 billion over the next decade from projected spending.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said the Pentagon’s budget request is a “budget-driven strategy, not a strategy-driven budget.”
Smith views this as “an endless and ridiculous debate,” saying, “you have to consider the budget when you’re putting together a strategy” because there is not an infinite amount of money available.
Smith said $487 billion is a good place to start but warned there can be “too much enthusiasm for cutting defense,” given the threats posed by countries like North Korea and Iran.
As for the automatic spending cuts that could come in January 2013 if Congress does not raise another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, Smith said he still believes it won’t happen.
If Congress cannot figure out how to stop it, at the very least, it will have to allow the federal government flexibility in how it administers the cuts, he said.
If Congress waits until December to solve the problem, it will do great harm to the economy, he said.
Too many people are using the election as an excuse not to act, he said. “This problem is now.”