As I predicted last week, Congress voted to increase the debt ceiling, thus avoiding default, and everyone got their checks on time.
Well, not quite everyone. Apparently in haste to get home for the summer break, the Senate failed to pass a temporary bill to finance the Federal Aviation Administration, leaving 4,000 agency employees out of work, along with thousands of airport construction workers.
Late last week, leaders in Congress worked out a deal to end the partial shutdown that had threatened to become the Capitol's next partisan stalemate.
That the debt ceiling legislation, passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, was not lauded as an unqualified success is an understatement of some magnitude. Nevertheless, this should not have surprised anyone. Compromise, particularly on a hotly contested issue, rarely satisfies its architects or those affected by its passage.
If there is a silver lining in this compromise, it is that the system did work, albeit a bit frantically. Brinkmanship pushed its passage and signing to the point of emulating the “Perils of Pauline,” the 1914 silent film considered the most suspenseful episodic serial in cinema history. This suspense could have been avoided had the debt ceiling been treated as a serious matter prior to the month of June.
The major roadblocks to early resolution of the debt ceiling crisis were the product of ignoring economic reality on both sides of the political aisle, a malady that has not materially abated.
The Republicans' tea party faction, riding a wave of conservative popularity as the catalyst of the GOP landslide in the 2010 elections, was frustrated by unrealistic expectations in its ability to influence larger spending reductions.
The tea partyers' aggravation is recognized as genuine. Nevertheless, when your party controls but one house of Congress and faces the fate of a sure presidential veto, your leverage is limited.
Comprised primarily of first-termers, this faction’s lack of legislative experience and leadership is readily apparent, though they were instrumental in the dollar-for-dollar debt reduction package and allowing no new taxes to survive the compromise.
The Democratic Party’s brush with economic reality appeared in several venues. Initially, the president, the Senate majority leader and the House minority were adamantly opposed to anything other than passing a clean debt ceiling increase with no corresponding spending cuts.
When that position proved untenable, Social Security, Medicare, the health care bill and “green” innovations were declared “non-negotiable.” Meanwhile, the Nancy Pelosi wing continued to wage its never-ending obsession for class war on the productive, demanding that the rich pay more taxes.
Accordingly, while not perfect by any means, a measure of success was achieved in raising the debt limit while also limiting spending.
There is cause for concern for the future of this agreement, as it is to be governed by a 12-member, bipartisan committee. If it cannot enact a qualified debt reduction plan by December, an automatic trigger kicks in. Should this occur, nearly half the cuts would be borne in security spending, the bulk coming from the Department of Defense.
These additional cuts in defense spending, on top of those already agreed upon by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, portend a serious reduction and/or sacrifice in national security. The age and condition of our arms and equipment following two decades and three wars show an alarming wear and tear.
Additionally, when defense spending is reduced, the day-to-day operational commitments remain ongoing, while the cuts made in R&D (research and development), procurement, military construction and manpower place readiness in peril.
Although defense must absorb a measure of the needed frugality, it should be clear that such draconian cuts will have a devastating effect on combat readiness, our own national defense and the military posture of the western civilized world.
That the military power of our allies is at low ebb is abundantly clear in the pitiful performance of NATO in failing to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya. Like it or not, without the military arms, equipment and manpower of the United States, the majority of our allies are paper tigers.
Conversely, as there are no automatic cuts in entitlement spending, future security is held hostage to the cause of the debt crisis — spending as usual on high-dollar social programs such as Social Security and the ultra-costly Obamacare. Admittedly, the existence of social safety nets is necessary, but they have been abused, overused, added to and taken for granted to the point where one must wonder who is going to be left to pull the wagon when we all climb aboard.
Currently, Social Security and Medicare account for 41 percent of all federal spending, while the Defense Department’s share is 20 percent. The latest estimates, made April 1, show Social Security solvent through 2040, Medicare through 2020 and the Social Security disability fund to go under by 2018.
Unless Congress elects to bite the bullet and overhaul these entitlements rather than buy votes by convincing the public that the trust fund is other than a massive IOU, the well will run dry.
Balancing entitlements against defense spending is, of course, a tenuous position, “guns versus butter” being a familiar argument, particularly during time of peace. Nevertheless, are our citizens not equally entitled to protection and security against an armed enemy in that “to provide for the common defence” is included in the Preamble to the Constitution?
Without an adequate and modern national defense, any social/medical entitlements could easily become OBE (overtaken by events).
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.