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The GOP's spendthrift ways

There's a tendency among some to shorthand the ongoing federal budget debate as between Republicans who want to reduce government spending and Democrats who don't. This isn't really the case, as recent actions in the House have demonstrated.

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee took a close look at President Barack Obama's proposed $525.4 billion defense spending plan and decided that simply wasn't enough. The GOP-controlled committee voted to authorize nearly $4 billion more than what the Pentagon had requested for 2013.

How is that possible? Republicans are once again trying to save weapons systems that the military doesn't actually want. That's the kind of micromanagement that inevitably harms national security; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already warned that saving a low-priority weapon could result in harmful cutbacks to hardware the military actually needs.

But wait, you may say, that's just the authorization — the shopping list, if you will. Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee, which actually helps decide how much to spend, is moving in the same direction. Earlier this week, the defense subcommittee approved more than $3 billion in additional Pentagon spending in 2013.

What makes all this misplaced generosity toward the military-industrial complex all the more ludicrous is that the Pentagon still has the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over its head in the form of sequestration. Unless Congress and the White House reach some sort of budget compromise between now and the end of the year, automatic cuts will be triggered including more than $500 billion in future spending at the Pentagon, about $55 billion of it next year.

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans alike are unhappy with that threat, but it's the GOP that seems most interested in sidestepping it. "We shouldn't be cutting national defense spending and imperiling our security to meet arbitrary caps," was how Rep. Paul Ryan put it this week.

To which we can only say, Mr. Ryan is absolutely correct. The problem is, that "train wreck" budget plan is there for a reason. The plan was adopted last summer, when Republicans and Democrats failed to reach agreement on a deficit-reduction deal. The required cuts were meant to be as painful as possible to force the two sides into negotiation.

Naturally, that hasn't happened. The parties appear no closer to resolving their differences than they were when the automatic cuts were set in place. But if this is a game of chicken, the approaching cars are still a mile or two away, and there's time to swerve — just not a lot of it, given that the Pentagon must make some budget-related decisions by early next year.

Mr. Ryan would avoid sequestration by foisting much more of the cutbacks on entitlement programs. It's essentially the same tune he has been singing for a couple of years now, and Democrats aren't dancing to it now any more than they did last year. Reducing the deficit can't be entirely at the expense of the nation's most vulnerable citizens in the form of cutbacks to Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, school nutrition or other safety net programs.

That's not to suggest that appropriate cutbacks can't be made, but the pain needs to be spread around to all income classes. The GOP is also pushing for a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, another ludicrous proposition given the party's professed concerns about the federal deficit.

The only honest way to avoid sequestration is for President Obama and congressional leaders to return to the negotiating table and come up with a plan that reins in spending in the long term but also includes tax increases (or closing of loopholes) in the name of shared sacrifice. It will not give Democrats everything they want nor Republicans all they'd like but would involve compromise.

That probably can't happen before the November election, as partisan politics simply won't allow it, particularly in a presidential contest that's too close to call. But that doesn't mean it's time to wiggle out of what appears to be the only way to develop a bipartisan agreement — by a budgetary shotgun to the head.

Mr. Ryan bemoans how "letting budgetary concerns drive national security strategy means choosing decline." That's a little melodramatic, but he's essentially right. Avoiding sequestration ought to be his greatest priority — above even his party's allegiance to no-tax pledges. So why isn't it?

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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