A member of the secretive congressional committee in charge of finding ways to rein in the U.S. government from its staggering deficit is already asking about ways to get around the harshest penalty associated with failure: $600 billion in automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget.
During one of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’s few public hearings Oct. 26, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) asks whether future Congresses could change the Budget Control Act’s stipulation that without an agreement to cut spending, the government would hand down $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts — with half of those directed at the Pentagon.
“Any Congress can reverse the actions of a previous Congress,” answers Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office.
But that would have a consequence — an even worse deficit, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Elmendorf agreed.
The exchanges — volleys of rhetorical questions — were typical of those during the hearing of the 12-member “super committee,” which has less than one month to make recommendations to the rest of Congress. The committee has to work even more quickly if it wants the CBO to score its work — turning in a proposal by early next month.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also brought up defense spending, saying that the Budget Control Act only caps spending for fiscal 2012 and 2013 and doesn’t restrict war funding at all.
“The appropriations committee could decide to spend more on security than is allowed under the caps in the first two years,” Baucus says.
And he asked whether war funding, which is not restricted by the budget act passed by Congress in August, could be limited to find savings.
CBO estimates that the U.S. would spend $1.3 trillion between 2012 and 2021 on wars. CBO arrives at that figure by taking this year’s $119 billion and extrapolating based on the cost of inflation. That’s less than earlier in the year, when war spending projections were based on $159 billion — the level of spending in 2011. Regardless, Elmendorf says yes, savings would result from a cap on war costs.
Baucus’s question revived a debate from the summer. Republicans have dismissed counting savings from the wars as a gimmick, when the Obama administration has already announced its intention to leave Iraq by year’s end and continue to draw down forces in Afghanistan. But the Montana senator points out that the Senate Appropriations Committee has used nearly $10 billion in war accounts to pay for equipment previously requested in the base defense budget.