GOP Debt Ceiling Bill Still Cuts Defense (UPDATED 4/26)

When Kevin McCarthy finally offered his proposed debt ceiling bill, I did the math and determined it would lead to defense cuts of more than $1.3 trillion (yes, with a T) during the next decade.

Since then, various individual Republicans have told the press they don’t plan on making cuts to defense. Their flowery words have two problems. First and foremost, Kevin McCarthy isn’t echoing them. Secondly, even holding Pentagon spending to proposed FY2024 levels will lead to cuts over ten years.

Defense Defenders Don’t Speak for the Speaker

It didn’t take long for the defense hawks in the GOP to push back against the potential ax to military spending (Roll Call).

“We’re going to work through that in the appropriations process. We can work through it,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., a senior appropriator. “I’m OK with it as long as, at the end of the day, those of us who want to protect defense, we will do that.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, herself a longtime defense hawk, has vowed not to cut Pentagon accounts in the spending bills she’s writing for fiscal 2024. Veterans and border security programs are also considered safe.

Their flowery words have two problems. First and foremost, Kevin McCarthy isn’t echoing them. All he has done is talk up the bill itself, which does not separate defense from non-defense spending. Neither has his de facto chief deputy (Marjorie Taylor Greene).

Meanwhile, other Republicans in the House – particularly the Budget Committee Chair – are hearing “desire among some conservatives to pare back Pentagon spending” (Politico). So while it’s possible Republicans will steer clear of the trillion-plus-dollar defense cut, it’s nowhere near certain.

No Matter How You Slice It, It’s Still a Defense Cut

Let’s now examine the scenarios where defense spending doesn’t fall by over $1 trillion. Contrary to what Republicans want to tell us, they’ll still cut defense spending. I’ve gone through the House Freedom Caucus version last month. If HFC wants to hold defense spending to current levels (UPDATE 4/26:  Chip Roy endorsed the $858B figure in the House Rules Committee Hearing on the Bill and on the House floor during debate on the rule), it would be still be a cut of $962 billion over ten years. If a 1% annual increase is included, that would still put the decade-long defense cut at $566B.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have been emphasizing the effect on non-defense spending. Politically, that makes sense, given that non-defense programs are a lot more popular with Democrats. However, their assumption is that the GOP will agree to Biden’s defense spending request of $886 billion before imposing 1% annual growth. As it turns out, even that proposal would cut defense over the next decade by $273 billion.

In short, Republicans aren’t arguing over whether to cut defense spending. They’re arguing about how much to to cut defense spending.

Don’t Forget Ukraine, No Matter How Much They Want You To

The idea that defense spending would be cut at all in 2023 crosses the open border into insanity. As I write this, Ukraine either has started or is preparing to start their next offensive. They have relied on military aid from the rest of the world ever since Russia’s brutal invasion. Not only must we keep supporting them with materiel as much as we can; we must also replenish our supplies of weapons that have gone to them.

Here, the president himself deserves some criticism. He chose not to put off most of the Ukraine funding request for emergency appropriations. That was an error. The Republicans, however, are compounding the mistake rather than correcting it. By any measure, aid for Ukraine would be no more in their moving target budgets than in Biden’s. In fact, as the DoD noted, it would likely be less.

Indeed, the more defense spending is “protected,” the less support Ukraine would get from other parts of the whole of government response. Then again, Greene and other prominent Republicans have made it clear they oppose any aid to Ukraine.

McCarthy is putting the debt ceiling bill up for a vote this week. We’ll see if he can cobble together 218 votes for cutting our defense and crippling our Ukrainian allies. If so, it’ll be a big win for him – and for Moscow.

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