We always had limited expectations for the debt deal. We didn’t think that if Republicans pushed the showdown beyond any deadline, Democrats would buckle and endorse a balanced-budget amendment. We did think Republicans could get cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt limit, and they did. In the first phase of the two-tier plan, they got spending caps that will limit the growth of discretionary spending over time for a $900 billion reduction from what Washington was planning to spend. The second phase aims to cut at least another $1.2 trillion, meeting Speaker John Boehner’s goal of achieving cuts roughly equal to the total increase in the debt limit of more than $2 trillion.
But the details matter. As they have emerged over the last days or so, they are worrisome, especially as they pertain to defense. The White House claims that $350 billion will be cut from defense in the first round. Republicans dispute this. What no one disagrees about is that defense is on the line for half of the automatic cuts that will be triggered if a supercommittee charged with coming up with at least another $1.2 trillion in cuts fails to produce, or if Congress doesn’t pass its recommendations. This would mean a roughly $500 billion reduction utterly disconnected from any strategic considerations. Republicans on the committee — the parties get six appointees each, three from each house — will be negotiating with a gun to the head of the Pentagon. Liberal priorities such as Social Security and Medicaid are exempted, and Medicare cut-backs are strictly limited.
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