Supercommittee failure: Republicans lose their mantle as guardians of national defense

The American kabuki dance known as the Congressional supercommittee has ended where it started, with no deal on cutting $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit. What it has mostly accomplished is to underscore why public approval of Congress as a whole is mired at a ludicrous 9 percent in the polls.

At the outset, logic seemed to suggest that having only a dozen experienced cooks in the kitchen made more sense than having 535 pairs of hands in the pie. The fallacy was in believing or hoping that the distinguished dozen would manage to put aside the groupthink dominating each party and come to an agreement on a sensible compromise.


Instead, in spite of some timid initiatives on each side to break the roadblock between the Republicans' insistence on no tax increases and Democrats' insistence on no major entitlement cuts, the leaders on each side finally threw in the sponge. So unless there is a genuine softening of positions on one side or the other, or on both, over the next year, the automatic ax called sequestering will fall.

That's the fancy name for mandatory budget cuts across the board with few exemptions hitting all departments and agencies, including Defense. Heretofore the Pentagon has been regarded as untouchable, particularly by Republicans in Congress, who consider themselves the special guardians of national security.


Hence, it was of particular interest that a prominent Republican and former secretary of defense (albeit in the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton) has called on his former GOP colleagues in Congress to rescue the armed services by agreeing to larger tax increases.

William S. Cohen, a longtime member of the House and Senate from Maine, charged in the New York Times that his own party "is directly responsible" for the supercommittee's failure. It should have, he wrote, gone "much farther" in "bridging the gap with Democrats" over providing new revenue in return for sharper cuts in spending.

Mr. Cohen, one of the vanishing breed of moderate Republicans when he served in Congress, lauded the offer of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a supercommittee member, to accept about $300 billion in tax increases in return for lower tax rates. But even that offer didn't go far enough, Mr. Cohen wrote, "to avert the possibility of disastrous cuts to our military."

Senator Toomey subsequently told the conservative Weekly Standard that the Democrats demanded $1 trillion in new taxes, unacceptable to his party. However, 33 members of the Republican Study Committee in the House had already sent a letter to the supercommittee demanding "no tax increase" at all.

Mr. Cohen wrote he has "long been concerned that my party's rigid antitax ideology is harming the fiscal health of our nation. Now it is harming our national security as well, as cuts in defense spending on a calamitous scale are about to be triggered." Mr. Cohen noted that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said he is already making cuts of $465 billion in the Defense budget and would have to swallow another $600 billion under the automatic sequester that would "truly devastate our national defense."

However, that view is not shared by many Democrats, who see in the deep cuts a vehicle for a desirable re-evaluation of the America's role in the post-Cold war world. With the American military involvement in Iraq coming to a close at the end of this year, and a similar winding down planned for Afghanistan, the Obama administration has taken a notable step back from the radical foreign policy of former President George W. Bush. President Obama's limited engagement in aiding the overthrow of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi was a further move in reassessing America's role in global peacekeeping.

In those terms, the failure of the supercommittee to strike a bipartisan agreement that would avert the automatic cuts in defense provides a cover for members of Congress, particularly in the Democratic Party, who see the American military role already overextended. With a severe economic and unemployment crisis at home, a case can be made for a refocus on domestic needs, maintaining a military adequate to meet the realistic threats faced, rather than the adverturism and nation building of the recent past.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His email is