Congress talks big about spending cuts, but tends to flinch in the face of the actual consequences.
This summer, Congress and the Obama administration agreed on $350 billion in federal spending cuts across the board. That would be on top of $78 billion in cuts over five years ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates that would, at the end of that time span, reduce the Pentagon budget to zero real growth, according to the White House budget office.
However, filled with fiscal rectitude and fired with budget-cutting mania, Congress empowered a panel of its members to come up with a plan for another $1.5 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. If the panel fails or Congress rejects its recommendations, that would trigger an automatic spending cut of $1.2 trillion — with half of it coming from the military.
Those cuts can only be achieved by cutbacks in the size of the military, including the reserves and National Guard; the amount and quality of equipment, pay and retirement benefits; housing; health care; and the upkeep of base facilities.
Facing the actual consequences of the cuts ahead, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said these reductions would make military service so unattractive that the Pentagon and Congress would have to restore the draft.
Compulsory military service, the draft, is as old as organized warfare. The United States had the draft during the Civil War, World War I and again through World War II, Korea and Vietnam until it was ended, to near-universal relief, in 1973.
Since then, there has been no political support for reviving it. The military has had few problems filling its ranks with volunteers, especially when the economy is bad. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, our professional military is a formidable fighting force.
Those wars are winding down, but the unfinished business in Libya, the unrest in the Mideast, the Republicans outbidding each for Israeli support and China's designs on islands claimed by its neighbors make it premature to see our troops retiring quietly to their garrisons.
McKeon may be playing poker to keep the military budget intact, but the fact that he would commit Republican heresy by suggesting that tax increases may be necessary indicates the depths of his concern.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.