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The biggest problem with the GOP's debt ceiling spending cuts

Protecting defense spending while forcing massive cuts to federal aid programs wouldn't truly make Americans safer.

The U.S. is a little more than two weeks away from potentially defaulting on its debts for the first time. And after another meeting between congressional leaders and President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday, there’s still no deal to avert such a catastrophic self-own. Americans who are even aware of the looming threat are sure that some eleventh-hour deal will prevent disaster, but there’s still a long way to go before House Republicans are willing to release their hostage.

Despite the party’s insistence that a slew of cuts is the only way to clamp down on Washington’s spending, not all areas of the budget are reportedly on the table. There’s little appetite among Republicans for any cuts to the defense side of the budget, which makes for a ludicrous mismatch between their stated reasons for this standoff and where their priorities lie.

Of course, it’s not the fault of Republicans alone that the national defense budget is a bloated $857.9 billion — or $8.5 trillion over the next decade. Defense funding has been one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement over the last two decades, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. But in negotiating last year’s annual spending bill, Republicans held firm against Democrats’ insistence on parity between military and nondefense spending and were the reason defense spending accounted for most of the $1.7 trillion package.

The omnibus bill came together with the knowledge that the incoming GOP majority would most likely move to rein in spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Last month, the House passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act as its ransom note, demanding, among other things, that the government roll total spending back to what it was in fiscal year 2022. That bill, tellingly, didn’t include details about just what should be cut to reduce spending by about $130 billion, but now the GOP is declaring spending at the Pentagon and potentially the departments of Homeland Security and Veteran Affairs off-limits. In fact, all those departments may get increases in spending next year if recent Republican claims are to be believed.

Shalanda Young, the head of the White House Office of Budget and Management, sent out a memo Tuesday warning that shielding those departments from cuts could mean as much as a 30% cut in every other department’s budget. Any further attempt to make those cuts less uniform would result in even sharper reductions for some programs.

The Republicans’ commitment to defense spending at the expense of everything else perfectly highlights their sharp divide with Democrats over how they view the world and the role of government. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said this week that reducing defense spending should be avoided because “it’s a very dangerous world right now.” Cole added that in contrast to domestic spending — which he described as “wants and desires” — spending on the military is “a very different level of commitment.”

That approach became especially popular in the post-9/11 world. It’s a mindset based in fear and based on the need to cover up that fear by appearing tough to the rest of the world. (That the mindset helps provide a continued fount of cash for the defense industry, which then invests heavily in political campaigns and lobbying, is a whole other matter that again transcends partisan lines.) The “wants and desires” that Cole dismisses are much more a key part of any claim to American exceptionalism than Congress’ paying for boats the Navy hasn’t asked for and for the production of weapons the Army doesn’t want.

The refusal to even consider defense spending cuts undermines the GOP’s narrative that out-of-control spending is unsustainable. It is also part and parcel of a worldview that sees fighting wars abroad as more important than feeding hungry children at home. Because I have to ask: What is all this military spending trying to protect if it results in colder, harder, darker lives for the people of this country?