One of the most significant events of 2011 didn’t even happen in 2011.
It happened in November 2010, when highly motivated Tea Partarian voters sent a cadre of freshmen to Congress as part of a change in control of the House from Democrats to Republicans.
The new Republican House -- and especially its core group of anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government, anti-President Obama diehards -- became the tail that wagged the dog of Washington almost as soon as the new Congress was seated early in the year.
The Tea Partarian philosophy of government is that almost everything it does is wrong, so if it functions badly or even stops functioning at all, that’s fine. 2011 was the year in which threats of government shutdown became commonplace; negotiations between Republicans and the White House became almost impossible; and a once-prosaic piece of bureaucratic procedure became a weapon in the service of deficit hawks.
Congress, under the control of both parties, had raised the limit of what the U.S. could borrow 11 times in 10 years, but this summer, Republicans announced they’d had enough. Unless congressional Democrats and the White House agreed to a plan to reduce the long-term deficit, Republicans threatened to block raising the debt ceiling. This raised the specter the United States could default on its obligations, and in the view of many, cause a worldwide financial crisis because of the trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds held by investors around the world.
In a dynamic that was to repeat itself throughout the year, House Speaker John Boehner could not make a deal with Obama until the last minute because of constant churn from his conservative members. Many were the reports of “grand bargains” reached in principle, but which never materialized.
What did materialize was an absurdist drama that could’ve come from the pen of Bertolt Brecht. In exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling, Congress was to create a joint “supercommittee” – the Blue Ribbon Panel to End All Blue Ribbon Panels – charged with coming to an agreement on how to reduce the long-term U.S. deficit by $1.2 trillion. But if this joint panel failed, its members couldn’t just pat each other on the back and call it a day. Oh no.
If the supercommittee failed, it would trigger a legislative Rube Goldberg machine that would get the $1.2 trillion in cuts anyway, automatically “sequestering” the money from across the board over the following decade. Here we come at last to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon and its leaders had spent months huffing and puffing while trying to outrun the 535-headed monster chasing them down the Potomac. Former Secretary Gates had tossed about $178 billion in “efficiencies” over his shoulder to try to slow the beast down, and in April, he had agreed when President Obama voluntold him to cut about $400 billion more.
The debt ceiling bargain, however, raised the stakes. Not only would the Pentagon have to give up budget growth right off the rip, in the event of a super-failure, it would surrender another $500 billion across the board as part of sequestration. That threat of a nearly $1 trillion hit – everybody has their own precise numbers about how much money is actually involved – suddenly loomed over DoD like a boulder about to crush Wile E. Coyote.
If you were keeping score at home, you noticed the Pentagon had actually gotten off easy: The White House’s first announcement said it had to agreed to $350 billion in upfront spending reductions for DoD – less than what Obama had called for in April, and apparently the same batch of cuts. In other words, DoD didn’t take a $400 billion hit in April and then another as part of the debt ceiling deal – the Obama administration just moved the same number forward and passed it to the Pentagon for a new “comprehensive strategic review.” Still, these and other numbers started to get fuzzy real fast.
This problem of real math and perception math was to come up again and again in 2011, as defense officials and their allies in Congress threw out the biggest and scariest numbers to try to warn of the dangers to the military. A senior defense official told reporters in a background brief that sequestration would mean furloughs and layoffs; later, a series of House Armed Services Committee hearings cautioned that the cuts would be the modern-day equivalent of the Cretaceous asteroid strike.
Secretary Panetta warned sequestration would create a “hollow force;” it would leave the U.S. military as “a paper tiger;” it would “be like shooting ourselves in the head.” This Pentagon talking point found its way into public remarks by every leader: We’re really bad at predicting what kind of conflicts will come our way next, so we’ve got to be ready for everything, so we can’t cut too deeply.
Panetta sent Senate lawmakers a list of popular programs that he said would go away under sequestration, including crowd favorites such as the F-35, ships and ground vehicles. The Army’s vice chief invoked some of its most embarrassing defeats as a warning to Congress to build down the post-war force in the right way, lest it cost the lives of tomorrow’s soldiers. And on and on it went.
None of it did any good. The super committee didn’t even deliver a proposal for Congress to reject – its members threw up their hands and said compromise was impossible. They set in motion the long-term reductions to the Pentagon’s budget growth that the Iron Triangle had spent months trying to prevent.
Different entities reacted to this in different ways. The Pentagon went into denial – it’s planning to deliver reports and budgets in January that reflect some $450 billion in reduced growth, officials say, and that’s it. “We have not been told to plan for sequestration,” was the official line.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon responded by proposing that Congress protect DoD from sequestration, either by voiding it altogether or by beginning to cut the federal workforce to offset the early reductions. But President Obama threatened to veto any attempt by Congress to get out of jail free, and Secretary Panetta, trapped between his own earlier warnings and his boss, also said he opposed voiding sequestration.
Obama, having mostly stayed on the sidelines of this whole farce, shrugged. After the year in Washington of coming right up against government shutdowns and the debt ceiling defaults, he pointed out that Congress had given itself a year before sequestration took effect – lots more time to get a deal. If lawmakers could get a “comprehensive solution” and hit the $1.2 trillion goal line, the guillotine needn’t fall, Obama said.
But Hill and DoD officials had earlier said that even though sequestration wouldn’t kick in until early 2013, its ill effects might begin right away. According to the official line, the threat of the budget clampdown would mean lots of immediate problems with planning and scheduling. After the supercommittee’s failure, however, no one was prepared to revisit those earlier warnings and talk about the nearer-term headaches.
In fact, it was impossible to know how real any of the year’s many threats and warnings actually were. One of the main stories of 2012 will be how it all turns out.