A future historian would describe the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) as having a profound effect on the United States. The BCA, he would write, was a critical step toward making America into a social democracy while ensuring its decline as a global military power. He would conclude that the law transformed the U.S. government into an entitlements agency that occasionally paved a road or killed a terrorist.
The historian would also note the irony. This was not, he would observe, what the BCA’s conservative supporters intended. But their undying devotion to the law’s spending caps, its mindless “sequestration” mechanism, and its singular focus on the shrinking of the “discretionary” portion of government spending, ensured that “mandatory” programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and income support grew unchecked while the brunt of spending cuts fell on America’s armed forces. The operation was a sort-of-success – the federal deficit didn’t rise quite so rapidly – but the patient died.
Thanks to the budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Patty Murray, and others, there is now a chance to write an alternative history of America’s future. To be sure, the numbers in the deal are miniscule: The deal adds $63 billion to the BCA caps for 2014 and 2015, supposedly offset over 10 years by $85 billion in savings proposals. But breaking the BCA’s chokehold on the politics of spending and saving the military from the worst of sequestration would be a critical achievement. The deal is a tiny first step, but the change of direction could be huge.
It’s a change that true fiscal hawks should embrace. For one thing, the political effect of the BCA has been to delay a much needed debate about entitlement reform. Thus, while the BCA has trimmed about $150 billion in discretionary spending through 2013, mandatory spending has risen by $200 billion. The Congress actually has less annual control over the federal budget as a result of the BCA, and the law acts as an enabler for the entitlement state.
But it’s the defense cuts – $489 billion in the baseline act, another $500 billion resulting from sequester, all piled on the hundreds of billions sliced in the first two years of the Obama presidency – that epitomize the BCA madness. The law’s supporters want it both ways: they claim the cuts are no big deal to a bloated Pentagon, but are now having a fit because the Ryan-Murray proposal reduces the amount of sequester. It cuts the cut. But cutting the cut is the least Congress should be doing on the merits. A lot more is required. But the BCA has warped the defense dialogue into a narrow debate over dollars, not America’s national security needs, or even about what level of defense spending we can afford.
The alternative history of our nation’s future should be one written by the country’s center-right political leaders, one that adds new chapters to the ongoing American story of peace, liberty, and prosperity. The Ryan-Murray deal may represent a small amount in dollars, but it’s an opportunity to get the narrative back on track for next year’s elections and particularly for the 2016 presidential contest. It’s a chance to begin strengthening our national defense, and to begin to remind ourselves that providing for the common defense is the first and fundamental job of our national government.