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Supercommittee triggers automatic budget cuts. What now?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

(Read caption) In this file photo, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction meets to hear from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf about the national debt, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Failure by Congress’ debt-cutting supercommittee to recommend $1.2 trillion in savings by Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011, is supposed to automatically trigger spending cuts in the same amount to accomplish that job.

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Now that the supercommittee seems to have gridlocked, we default to the automatic cuts—the sequester.  The fact that these are split evenly between defense and non-defense has some members of Congress* talking about “reconfiguring” the deal to take less from defense, and implicitly more from non-defense spending (entitlements are largely exempted from the sequester).

This is pure bait and switch.  I’m sorry they don’t like the deal they cooked up to get out of the debt-ceiling mess they created.  I’m not a big fan either.  But the trigger was structured as tough on defense to make it something they’d want to avoid.  And let’s remember: the $900 billion of cuts already on the books came exclusively from the non-defense part of the budget from important programs that are already strained—Head Start, child care, education, infrastructure, R&D, and more.

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As far as the reconfigurers’ tag-line—“a threat to national security”—well, I don’t buy it and they should have thought of that before.  Defense spending is up to around $550 billion per year, and security, adding in Homeland Security et al, gets you up to close to $900 billion.  So $55 billion of cuts per year for nine years is a worthy goal, especially in a world where a flexible, efficient military is much more important than a huge one.

But I’m no expert and if I’m wrong—if defense cuts of that magnitude are too large—then they should be diminished dollar-for-dollar with the cuts on the non-defense side.  Yes, that means less than $1.2 trillion in deficit savings but so be it.  It’s an arbitrary target anyway, set because that was the increase in the debt ceiling, which itself is a useless construct.  The concentric circles of crazy here are truly daunting.

*And the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, whom the White House needs to bring back on the reservation–quickly.

Or, perhaps you’d like to have this all summarized by a Haiku:

To reconfigure

Is to jigger the trigger

Than that, we’re bigger


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