Federal budget cutting won’t be painless

August 14, 2010


— Meet Robert Gates, also known as The Leading Indicator.

The defense secretary, who is noted among his colleagues for his special closeness with President Obama, stepped out in front of other department heads this week by announcing his plans to trim Pentagon spending in a major way next year.

You could hear the complaints all the way from Norfolk to the Washington suburbs, as Virginia politicians of both parties realized whose constituents would be idled by Gates’ plans. What has not yet sunk in is that this is simply the opening wedge in what will probably be the overriding issue of 2011-12, the struggle to discipline the federal budget.

In his announcement Monday, Gates said he wants to shutter the entire U.S. Joint Forces Command, an interservice innovation with about 2,800 military and civilian employees and 3,300 contractors, as a down payment on a long-term strategy to cut Pentagon and intelligence contracting by 10 percent a year over the next three years.

Along with changes in military procurement plans, previously announced, and new trims in the flag officers’ ranks, Gates has begun to outline the steps he thinks necessary to fight two wars even in an era of budget austerity.

What is yet to come are similar announcements from the heads of the major civilian agencies who also have been told by the president: Hoard your dollars for your most essential tasks, and understand that lower-priority projects will have to be sacrificed.

Those announcements will be trickling out later this autumn, as departments get their orders from the White House Office of Management and Budget. And the yelps of pain will signal a new round in the struggle between the executive branch and Congress.

The decision to go after the runaway budget deficits of the late Bush years and the carryover flood of red ink in the recession-crippled budgets Obama has submitted in his first two years stems from multiple sources.

The scare that Greece threw into European Union finances and the possibility of China and other creditors applying similar pressure to the United States is one nudge. Another is the probability that the fiscal sanity commission appointed by the president will use its December report to apply further heat on Obama to get serious about deficit reduction.

The likelihood of expanded Republican numbers of Capitol Hill, with the newly elected members having campaigned on promises to curb spending, may make it easier for Obama to do what he is already inclined to do. He and Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner already can see past the inflammatory rhetoric of the current congressional campaign to the likelihood that they will be negotiating toward a budget deal, come next year.

But applying the brakes to runaway federal spending will not be easy. As the first reaction to Gates’ announcement showed, whatever their proclaimed ideology, local politicians will squeal when their own constituents feel the budget ax.

Among the first to challenge Gates’ decision to eliminate the Virginia-based military command was Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican who has not hesitated to trim spending proposals by his Democratic predecessors.

He was joined by the state’s two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, who talk a good game of budgetary responsibility but squirm when it hits home.

Obama may have thought it was tough work to push Congress into spending all that he wanted for economic stimulus, education and other causes close to his heart. He is about to learn that nudging the lawmakers to trim the budget may be even tougher.

— David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. davidbroder@washpost.com


Snodgrass 7 years, 10 months ago

Paul Krugman is upset. He wants the Federal Reserve to take a number of concrete actions to make the deleveraging of America go away. He doesn't call it deleveraging of course. He calls it deflation, which means the money supply is contracting. Of course he doesn't explain how the money supply could contract or whether it is contracting.

He would no doubt say that such details are arcane and should not appear in a popular article on monetary analysis. We disagree of course. By continuing to define terms simplistically and in a Keynesian way, Krugman is perpetuating certain kinds of inaccurate information. Even if he disagrees with the classical definitions of inflation and deflation he should make them clear. (Even in his blog, which is quite elaborate, he does not.)

"Paralysis at the Fed ... Ten years ago, one of America's leading economists delivered a stinging critique of the Bank of Japan, Japan's equivalent of the Federal Reserve, titled "Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self- Induced Paralysis?" With only a few changes in wording, the critique applies to the Fed today. At the time, the Bank of Japan faced a situation broadly similar to that facing the Fed now. The economy was deeply depressed and showed few signs of improvement, and one might have expected the bank to take forceful action. But short-term interest rates — the usual tool of monetary policy — were near zero and could go no lower. And the Bank of Japan used that fact as an excuse to do no more. That was malfeasance, declared the eminent U.S. economist: "Far from being powerless, the Bank of Japan could achieve a great deal if it were willing to abandon its excessive caution and its defensive response to criticism." He rebuked officials hiding "behind minor institutional or technical difficulties in order to avoid taking action." – New York Times/Paul Krugman"


jafs 7 years, 10 months ago

What on earth does your comment have to do with this column, which doesn't even mention Paul Krugman?

Richard Heckler 7 years, 10 months ago

The best way to decrease the Pentagon budget would be to NOT fight two wars ever. Military advisors warned GW Bush that this would not be smart but GW did it anyway.

Gates is not cutting spending at all. He wants to spend the money elsewhere.

The two wars are coming at a cost of $5 trillion to we the taxpayers. How is this? As a result of this wars for oil control beginning under Reagan/Bush we taxpayers now have more than 200,000 disabled soldiers and their families to support. Politicians do not want to talk about this.

These are not wars the USA should have taken on. These are NOT wars that can be won per se no way jose'. The USA is the invader and not with the blessings of the world community.

War is a money hole that destroys budgets and thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of families including those of our military.

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