It is time for another award — unfortunately of the dubious distinction variety. This one, for Most Head-in-the-Sand Neanderthal Effort of the Year, goes hands down to Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) for their amendment to the Defense Authorization Act to eliminate — not just by defunding but by revoking its federal charter — the U.S. Institute of Peace.
USIP was created by an act of Congress in 1984 and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since. Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz recently said, “As the context of conflict has changed, so too must the tools of diplomacy and peace-building. ... The challenge is met by the independent, nonpartisan Institute of Peace.” President George W. Bush echoed Shultz’s praise — as do virtually all current and former top military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus.
Why? Because this is not some collection of pointy-headed peaceniks — USIP has been engaged in serious and risky work, hand in hand with our military, in Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots. It is engaged in mediation, nation building and other efforts to reduce conflict and save lives.
Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni wrote the following about USIP in Iraq: “In 2007, when the Army’s 10th Mountain Division arrived in Mahmudiya, a city of half a million in the ‘triangle of death’ dominated by Al Qaeda south of Baghdad, officers asked the institute to mediate between Shiite civil authorities and the Sunni sheiks who controlled the area. Institute-trained negotiators convened warring Iraqis to consolidate security, restore services, develop the local economy, enhance local governance and improve the rule of law. Gen. David H. Petraeus called it a turning point in the war.”
In Afghanistan, USIP has helped save lives and reduce the need for a heavy U.S. military presence, working to reduce tribal conflicts and prevent vacuums that the Taliban would readily fill.
USIP is deeply involved in Pakistan, trying to reduce Islamic fundamentalism taught through madrassas; in Colombia, in the Philippines, in the Niger Delta and all around the world; and engaged in vital efforts (such as the Iraq Study Group) in Washington as well.
People with some experience in the world remember the classic Fram oil filter commercial, where a mechanic says a $3 oil filter change can prevent a hugely expensive valve and ring job: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later,” he says. That admonition animates the likes of Petraeus, Zinni, Wes Clark, Mike Mullen and Bob Gates. They know that the comparative pittance we spend on organizations such as USIP now save lives and huge sums of money later.
We are engaged in two wars, with American troops in danger every day. USIP workers are also in danger — as they work to reduce the chances that more of our brave men and women will end up dead or gravely wounded. As I watched the stirring concert on the Mall on Memorial Day, I thought, “Who would you trust on these matters: Ronald Reagan, George Shultz and David Petraeus — or Chip Cravaack and Jason Chaffetz?”
The battle over USIP is only one of many skirmishes in a larger war, as House Members try to use both appropriations and authorizations to take a meat ax to government, with little consideration or debate about costs and benefits. The political war is about the size and scope of government. If it were about fiscal discipline, the first steps taken by Congress and the president would be to ameliorate the problems that caused the ballooning debt in the first place: deep tax cuts that have drained revenue, two wars and a Medicare prescription drug program unpaid for that account for up to four-fifths of the plunge from trillions in surplus in the late 1990s to double-digit trillions in deficits in this decade. The one trigger mechanism that actually brought a measure of fiscal discipline, pay-as-you-go rules, was eliminated this year.
That makes the special election in New York especially interesting. Make no mistake about it — Medicare drove the vote, enabling a Democrat to win 48 percent in a three-way race in a strongly Republican district. It is not just Democrats who say Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget ends Medicare as we know it; Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the same thing. And Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain called the plan not “premium support” but a voucher system.
For Republicans, the best way to get out from under their Medicare (and soon-to-be Medicaid) problem is to find a broader budget deal that includes, of necessity, some measure of entitlement reform and cutbacks in the future growth of Medicare and Medicaid that both parties buy into. But that will mean embracing many elements of the Affordable Care Act that they are trying to repeal and accepting a serious measure of tax increases.
Will Democrats take the opportunity for a compromise with embattled Republicans when the temptation to demagogue Medicare to the limit is so great? Can Republicans take on Grover Norquist for a higher purpose? Any debt limit compromise will have to include a credible trigger; can we achieve a version of PAYGO? These are the big questions ahead.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.