McKeon picking GOP fight with Democrats over spending cuts, whether real or imagined

WASHINGTON – House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., is relishing his role as the leading GOP guard dog against defense spending cuts heading into this fall’s debt supercommittee negotiations. 

In a strategically timed keynote speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, one day after the Sept. 11 anniversary, McKeon repeatedly blasted President Barack Obama as another a soft-on-defense, spending cut-happy liberal eager to scale back American forces around the world and gut the military. Obama, he said, “resigns us to national decline.”

“As we begin to emerge from a long, tough fight, this should be the time to reset and rebuild our military,” McKeon said Monday. “Instead, we are lowering our gloves.”

He later repeated the accusation, replacing “we” with “Obama.”

And so the political frame is set: it’s another classic left-vs.-right shootout upon the country. Hawks and Doves, right?

McKeon’s appearance was the latest event in an ongoing campaign by AEI, the Heritage Foundation and the Foreign Policy Initiative to protect against, they say, Obama’s defense spending cuts, which they worry could surpass the supercommittee's cuts. 

The supercommittee, AEI’s Thomas Donnelly warned, “if nothing else, is a large-caliber loaded weapon pointed directly at the U.S. armed forces. Those armed forces have gone through a lot of reductions since the end of the Cold War but more particularly in the last two or three years.”


Until now, Obama has increased or requested increases in total defense spending every year in office, from $528 billion in fiscal 2010 to $548 billion requested in 2011 and up to $553 billion in 2012, according to the Defense Department. In his first month in office, Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan and by December had ordered the surge of 30,000 more. Obama also ordered the U.S. military into NATO action over Libya.

Last week, McKeon launched a video lamenting the military downsizing since the 1990s, but mostly before Obama’s watch.  

If he was referring to the size of the military, after a decade at war, the Marines want to get smaller, and the Army is preparing for its own shrinkage. Neither is complaining much about it.

As for spending, Obama had ordered an “efficiencies” savings plan for the Pentagon that independent and liberal groups have blasted for not actually cutting much of anything. In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced DOD had found $154 billion in savings over five years, $78 billion of which could be kept and reinvested.  Gates’ aides stressed the plan was not a cut in total spending, it was a cut in the forecasted rate of growth.  

Obama later ordered the Pentagon to find another $400 billion by 2023, triggering alarms, but even that would barely be noticed, according to some analyses.

“Meeting that goal will require just a small real drop in planned spending over a decade, according to the White House, or simply keeping growth flat, one analyst found,” DefenseNews reported

David Sirota wrote in Salon.com’s War Room that under Obama’s proposed federal spending cuts, “The Pentagon would take on an even greater share of [total non-discretionary] spending.” In other words, Sirota accuses Obama of “increasing the size (and power) of the military relative to the rest of government.”

Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the first Democrat to run the Pentagon in 14 years, warned against the same overzealous cutting as McKeon. 

Still, on Monday, McKeon said, “At a time when our military is falling into disrepair, we have laid out over half a trillion dollars in projected cuts to Pentagon spending. I cannot understate how dangerous these defense cuts have become.”

BONUS: Whose Talking Points Are They, Anyway?

On the “hollow force”:
McKeon invoked the phrase used to describe the post-Vietnam era (and post wartime draft) cuts.

Gates gave the “hollow army” warning months ago.

His Democratic successor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, has pitched it right back at Congress, repeatedly. 

On setting strategy before spending limits:
McKeon: “They throw out a number … instead of setting a defensive strategy.”

Gates said the same thing in his own May speech at AEI. 

Panetta repeated it, last month. 

On using Pentagon cuts to leverage debt relief:
McKeon: “When the calls came for fiscal restraint and discipline, this administration has repeatedly turned to its favorite target: our armed forces. That’s not how you win the war, it’s not you sustain the peace, and it absolutely isn’t the way to pay off our debt. Folks, it is impossible to pay our entitlement tab with the Pentagon’s credit card.”

Panetta, in August: “If you're serious about dealing with budget deficits, you can't just keep coming back to the discretionary parts of the budget.” 

On the built-in supercommittee “trigger” cutting spending:
McKeon:  “It is my suspicion that the White House and congressional Democrats insisted on that defense number for one purpose: to force Republicans to choose between raising taxes or gutting defense. That political gamesmanship is simply unacceptable.”

Panetta has already called the trigger possibility “devastating.”



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