Jo Comerford: With the Super Committee deadlocked, the triggered cuts
to military spending in 2013 will not affect real US security
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The Congressional supercommittee is deadlocked. That’s the committee that was charged with finding $1.2 trillion of cuts in the US deficit, beginning in 2013 and then over the next–following 10 years. Well, they don’t seem to have reached an agreement as we record this interview, and unless there’s some last-minute miracle, they’re unlikely to do so. Well, a big part of those cuts is supposed to come from military expenditure. But just what exactly are they talking about? Now joining us to discuss the supercommittee, the deficit cutting, and military expenditure is Jo Comerford. Jo is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. Thanks for joining us, Jo.
JO COMERFORD, EXEC. DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PRIORITIES PROJECT: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So start this off. I guess you–it goes back to last August, this process. So pick it up, pick up the story from there.
COMERFORD: Sure, sure thing. So Congress passed something called the Budget Control Act, right? And that had two parts. One was an immediate deficit reduction measure of about $917 billion, and then followed by the formation of this entity called the supercommittee, whose mandate was an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. So the first $917 billion, again, through this Budget Control Act, was put forward with a mixture of what was called security and nonsecurity spending. This is important, because the security basket contained the Department of Defense. It also contained some Homeland Security, some Department of State, some Veterans Affairs, and, again, in this larger basket of defense. And then the–security. And then in this nonsecurity basket were social programs like housing, education, food assistance, infrastructure development, and the like. So this first $917 billion meant approximately $350 billion out of this large basket called “security” over a decade. And that has gone forward. The important thing to notice is that the bigger basket of security actually represents not only the baseline DOD, which for fiscal year 2012, for example, was projected at $553 billion, but then billions more in Homeland Security and the like, nuclear weapons and the like. So they were going to take this about $350 billion over a decade out of a very large percentage of the discretionary budget, where the other roughly $350 billion or so would be taken out of these nonsecurity programs, which represent a much smaller percentage on the whole of the discretionary budget. The story of that is that if you take the same amount, roughly, out of a smaller percentage, the cuts are deeper in social programs.
JAY: Yeah, ’cause the military represents such a bigger part of the overall budget.
COMERFORD: Exactly. And this time, in this phase, it was security. So we were heaping in some parts of Department of State, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, DOD, nuclear weapons. The only thing we were exempting was war spending, right? So that’s important, because in fact, you know, there’s many who speculate that these cuts, this first round of cuts, could be made with virtually the Department of Defense baseline budget remaining unscathed. So that’s important. And then we take us up to right now, the supercommittee. And as you well said in your introduction, there is a gridlock, a stalemate, a deadlock, however you want to put it, and where the two sides coming at this are finding an impasse. Right? We can’t find a resolve to this $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. And one of the large sticking points is the military budget. And in this phase, it would be out of baseline Department of Defense. So what we’re talking about now would be cuts to the Department of Defense budget.
JAY: So what are they looking at? I mean, first of all, it’s kind of hard to believe they’re really going to do this. Lindsey Graham and some other senators have said they’re going to find some way to pass a bill to stop this from happening. But if it does happen and this doesn’t happen until 2013, what does it look like?
COMERFORD: Right. Well, I think what you’ve just pointed out is really important. You know, when the supercommittee was first formed, a lot of House members and senators jumped on the bandwagon and were going to be sort of supercommittee loyalists, if you will. As it looks like it’s the biggest Titanic in this current month in Congress, many people are now stepping back from the supercommittee, saying that they won’t honor the findings of the supercommittee. So if the supercommittee finds a way forward, which is unlikely, [incompr.] until 2013, and there would be a new Congress elected and a new–potentially a change in our presidency in November, which would of course upset the apple cart. But–so in 2013 what it would look like if the supercommittee goes forward is unknown, because the supercommittee will have to make these recommendations. There have been a lot of people weighing in and a lot of think tanks and entities weighing in the places they couldn’t find the cost-saving measures in the Department of Defense baseline budget should they want to. So there’s one big entity called the sustainable defense task committee–task force, sorry, the Sustainable Defense Task Force. And that was a bipartisan commission that found, actually, $960 billion in deficit reduction measures over a decade, should the supercommittee want to take these recommendations up. And these measures are in things like reducing the nuclear weapons stockpile, reducing our force structure in Europe and Asia, and also really canceling more and cutting more deeply into some very outdated Cold War weapon systems. Another part of the Sustainable Defense Task Force found that we could do a whole lot better in the sort of waste, fraud, and abuse efforts. For example, the Government Accountability Office found a total of $420 billion in major systems cost overruns. That’s an aggregated number. These are cost overruns due to time management issues, projects not going well. Another entity, actually, the Department of Defense inspector general, for example, found $200 million in receipts that were not collected properly. So there’s lots of internal efficiencies the Pentagon could try to strive for to make their efforts internally more streamlined and do better business with the taxpayer dollars.
JAY: Now, there’s an interesting politics to all this, which is the sort of libertarian Republicans, Ron Paul, and one would guess Rand Paul and some of the others in that camp, are actually against this kind of big military budget. And they–Ron Paul uses the language of not wanting to build an American empire. In fact, I think Paul’s even come out in favor of closing foreign US military bases. I mean, is there a possibility, partly because of this fracture in the Republican Party, that there might actually really be a debate about does the United States actually need something–this enormous military budget to start with, in terms of its foreign policy objectives?
COMERFORD: Well, absolutely. And I think that’s one of the very encouraging things that’s come out of this. Both folks in local communities and members of Congress for the first time are actually being able to pull apart what’s inside the baseline Department of Defense budget, what’s in the nuclear weapons budget (which are housed in the Department of Energy), what’s in Homeland Security, what’s in our war spending. Another report came out by the Commission on Wartime Contracting that found that between thirty and sixty billion dollars in Iraq was lost due to fraud and mishandling. So all of these efforts are really cracking open this conversation, which is an important conversation to have and has a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle very interested in it.
JAY: I was kind of surprised how little comment there seemed to be about President Obama’s speech in Australia, where he talks about how the United States must continue to be an Asian power and if they’re going to put some American troops into some kind of training base in Australia and all this practically Cold War rhetoric about what US roles in Asia should be. That doesn’t sound like a president looking to cut a military budget.
COMERFORD: Right, absolutely conflicting messages there, because the White House has also, you know, put out messages of fiscal stewardship and needing to rethink our role of the military, needing to do better with taxpayer dollars, and then President Obama does have this other large announcement in Australia. So I agree. I think there’s some conflicting messages.
JAY: Well, can they get to this kind of cut they’re talking about, you know, if in fact they did, in 2013, through fraud and efficiencies and all of this? Or does it require a different approach to the whole US global footprint?
COMERFORD: Yes, the latter. It would require rethinking our force structure, rethinking the way we engage globally, rethinking the kinds of wars that our nation needs to prepare for. My colleague here called some of the Cold War weapons that are currently under construction and/or research the sort of preparing for the World War III in Europe. We understand that’s not going to happen, right? So we have to actually rethink our force structure, rethink the way we’re imagining conflict to happen, in terms of both making our nation more secure and also saving hundreds and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. So, right, we’re not going to find them all through, you know, waste, fraud, abuse, efficiency. We’re not going to find them all trying to retool the Pentagon’s business dealings. We’re going to have to look at our military as a whole and try to look at the numbers of folks we have stationed in Europe, the numbers of kinds of planes like the F-35 that we’re building that really are for perhaps a different era.
JAY: Well, I know you’ve done some modeling on this. I mean, if the US military was essentially just defensive and wasn’t trying to, quote-unquote, be a global leader, which some people use the term–or Brzezinski used the term “global dominance”, and maybe that was little more honest about it. If the issue really was defensive, what size of military do you think there needs to be? What kind of dollars would that involve?
COMERFORD: Right. You know, what the Sustainable Defense Task Force found was that we could have upwards of 8 or 9 percent cut over time, so roughly equaling about $1 trillion, just a little under $1 trillion, and have absolute no shift–absolutely no shift in our military preparedness, readiness to–in this modern day era. We would see a force structure reduction. We would see a retooling of weapons. We would see a re-preparedness of forces and absolutely emerge, perhaps, more secure within this military paradigm. Others have done some good thinking with regard to kind of how to think of our military as offensive or defensive, and they look at a little bit more deep cuts. But I think it’s important for us to go back to this bipartisan commission that found this very large savings over a decade and then turned out a report which many herald as a great blueprint for beginning the conversation about the American military in this new era.
JAY: Okay. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Jo.
COMERFORD: Sure. A pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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