WASHINGTON: The chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, is strikingly optimistic about the chances for consummating the so-called grand bargain and ending the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
When I buttonholed him after a Tuesday Defense Writers’ Group breakfast, Wittman went so far as to say that “I think there’s great potential” for the deal that’s eluded lawmakers since 2011, in which Democrats would accept cuts to entitlement spending and Republicans would accept increases in government revenue to end the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Just don’t call them the spending increases tax increases, Wittman made emphatically clear. “There’s a lot of hesitancy if it’s a tax increase, [but] loopholes and exemptions, there’s been a lot of talk about which ones of those would you rescind,” he told me. House Ways & Means Committee chairman Dave Camp has put together a package of “reasonable reforms,” Wittman said. “Some of them I don’t agree with, [but] there are places where you’ve had a lot of agreement, [and] it does raise revenue, yes.”
That said, a grand or even petty bargain on taxes and entitlements is out of Wittman’s hands. The same goes for all his House Armed Services colleagues. So what they have concentrated on is a campaign to educate other members on the dangers of defense cuts. The crucial prize: the incoming freshman class of the next Congress, when 56 seats will turn over due to retirements alone.
“The question is getting those folks up to speed. One of the first issues as they come in is going to be the sequester,” Wittman told reporters at the breakfast. “They’re going to be drinking from a fire hose,” he added, so you have to “give it to them in digestible bites,” much like the briefings HASC already conducted for Congress members and staffers.
‘”We’ve had great success at getting other members, especially those folks that are looking very specifically at the budget, to take a look at what happens with their military,” Wittman said. “It’s helping those folks develop a new appreciation of that portion of the budget and how it’s being disproportionately it’s being affected by these sequester cuts.”
Last year, “we had about 90 members come in and actually receive these secure briefs on the current state of readiness,” Wittman said. “People were astounded. They said, ‘well, gee , we didn’t understand that.’ So getting folks to understand the implications of these kinds of budget decisions is critical.”
Arguably the toughest audience is within Wittman’s own party, where budget hawks have overpowered defense hawks in recent years. “I think I’m making some significant progress there,” he said. Besides briefings, he explained, “what I’ve been doing is getting members out to look at what your military does,” such as embarking five legislators on an aircraft carrier just this past weekend: “Folks like Michele Bachmann” – a hero of the Tea Party – “came back and said ‘wow.'”
“I argue with my counterparts, listen, there’s no doubt we need to make sure we are efficient with the dollars we are spending…. but you can’t balance the budget on the backs of the men and the women in military,” Wittman said. “You can’t put 50% of those cuts in 18% of the budget”: While the Department of Defense dwarfs the other discretionary spending accounts Congress votes on each year, DoD itself is dwarfed by the mandatory entitlements like Social Security and Medicare that keep paying out until Congress votes otherwise. (Democrats won’t touch these programs without a guarantee the GOP will give in on revenue increases; hence the dreams of a grand bargain).
Wittman thinks the message is getting across to his fellow Republicans. “As I talk to folks like [House budget committee chairman] Paul Ryan and Dave Camp and others, they fully realize the challenges we face on the national defense side,” he said. Throughout Congress, “I do believe that there are more and more people that understand it.”
“I just don’t think that we haven’t had an opportunity here in the last year to really get to the root of the issue of the BCA [the 2011 Budget Control Act, which led to sequestration],” Wittman said, because 2013’s Bipartisan Budget Act put sequestration effectively on hold. Now that stay of execution is about to expire, and legislators will have to confront (or dodge) the hard decisions.
“If you don’t have these focusing moments, then you never get to the point to say, ‘hey listen, you have a choice, you can either make some terribly bad strategic decisions if you don’t fund these things or you can make the tough budget decisions,'” Wittman said. “When the new Congress is seated, that’s when the door’s gonna open.”