Now begins the great business for which the voters recalled the Republican party to power in Washington: reestablishing the habits of limited government. Starting with the debate on the 2011 continuing resolution--last year's Democratic majorities having failed to fund the government for the full year--and the building of the 2012 budget, conservatives will commit to the Sisyphean task of putting America's fiscal house in order.
Republicans will not just resize the government but reshape it, ensuring that Washington does well those jobs it alone must do, and otherwise giving private enterprise and civil society the greatest opportunity to flourish. And the one indispensable task of the federal government--indeed a principal reason why the Founders felt the need to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution--is national defense. The saliency of this need is no less apparent now, when we are fighting a war in Central Asia and globally against Islamist terrorists, facing an increasingly ambitious China, dealing daily with securing the great commons of the sea, space, and cyberspace, witnessing continuing instability in the Middle East, and may soon face not one but two rogue regimes armed with nuclear weapons.
The good news is that, in the reconsidered 2011 continuing resolution, the House Republican leadership is prepared to treat defense differently than domestic discretionary spending, adding about $8 billion to the defense levels now in force. This is an important assertion of principle, particularly in light of the impulse to put "everything on the table," in the spirit of lowest common denominator bipartisanship. More important, the leadership courageously held the line on defense when fiscal conservatives demanded $26 billion in cuts above those in the original resolution--and took all the additional cuts out of domestic discretionary programs.
House leaders are also committed to pushing through a complete defense bill rather than settling for another continuing resolution. The current CR already has created havoc in the Defense Department, providing monies for programs no longer needed and no monies for new starts, and forcing the services to divert funding--particularly from the "operations and maintenance" accounts that fund training and some war-related activities. Unpredictable funding exacerbates the problems of the Pentagon bureaucracy and actually drives up costs.
It is, however, undeniably the case that the defense budget levels in the resolution the House leadership brings to the floor will be lower than those requested by Barack Obama in his FY2011 budget submission. It's a world turned upside down when Democrats can plausibly assert that they are "stronger on defense" than conservative Republicans. The difference between the president's request and the leadership plan is about $13 billion--a cheap price to risk one of the most consistent strengths of the Republican party.
Moreover, in deference to their new members' budget-cutting zeal, the House leadership has designed a process of open rules to allow any member to offer deficit-reducing amendments. With luck, the increased cuts in the bill the leadership brings to the floor, which will allow fiscal conservatives to claim they achieved their campaign promise to reduce 2011 spending by $100 billion, will result in more cohesion, thereby preserving defense from further reductions.
But there is much more required than simply preserving the military we have now. That force is magnificent, but it has done too much with too little for too long. As the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review headed by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley summarily put it, "The general trend has been to replace more with fewer more-capable systems. . . . [B]eyond a certain point, quality cannot substitute for quantity." Republicans should therefore think twice before demanding that our armed forces do more with even less.
The debate on the 2011 continuing resolution is just a warm-up for the 2012 budget. That document will be written from scratch by the Republicans in the House, whereas the CR cleans up the mess left by the prior Congress. And the 2012 plan will be written against the background of the more than $300 billion already slashed from the Pentagon's budget by the Obama administration, and the additional $78 billion announced just last month. When the 2012 budget is released, we will truly know whether the new Republicans have the wit and the steadfastness to resist the temptation to slash defense mindlessly, and to insist that a strong defense is entirely compatible with a fiscally responsible and appropriately limited federal government.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies at AEI. Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow and director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI.