Despite hints from Democrats that defense spending is just as much a potential problem as other discretionary programs, Republicans — especially Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a member of the super committee — have bristled at the idea of slashing more funds from the Department of Defense. The issue is of particular note because if the super committee fails, mandatory across-the-board spending cuts, including about $500 billion from security-based discretionary spending, will be enacted over the next decade.
Republicans explored the possibility of Congress repealing the defense part of the mandatory cuts, while Democrats elicited agreement from Elmendorf that doing so might worsen the nation's budget outlook.
Kyl today also asked questions about how the president's recent announcement of a more immediate drawdown in Iraq might affect the budget office's baseline calculations. He appeared to be trying to make a point that including the withdrawal from Iraq as budget savings would be a gimmick that could backfire on the panel.
"This news from the administration is a factor that will presumably affect the funding they request and the funding Congress enacts but not necessarily in a one-to-one way that we could analyze," Elmendorf said. According to Elmendorf, discretionary spending accounts for 40 percent of the government's budgetary outlays, but half of that is for defense programs. The CBO chief noted that in the long run, continuing to cut into nondefense spending would have real "human costs."
"Over time, cuts in discretionary spending reduce, in general, the services that the American public receives — services in protection against foreign enemies, services in the highways they can use or the national parks they can visit or other sorts of programs," Elmendorf said in response to a question from Murray. "Those cutbacks have a variety of human costs. They can also have economic costs, depending on the nature of the cutback."
Though entitlement reform and taxes weigh heavily on the 12-member bipartisan, bicameral panel, lawmakers stuck pretty closely to the hearing's stated task of discussing discretionary outlays.
The public hearing came just a day after Democrats made a presentation to the full super committee outlining their first potential offering of a deficit reduction plan — a presentation Roll Call first reported about Tuesday night. Sources confirmed today that the package presented would implement $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion in cuts during the next decade. It would include tax increases that would nearly equal spending cuts.
The other issue plaguing the committee is what budget assumptions to make in order to score whatever proposal it generates. Where the panel starts and what it can assume in automatic savings — from the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts extended by President Barack Obama or from a drawdown in troops abroad, for example — could dictate how much it needs to cut.