"The budget hawks have defeated the defense hawks." So read one analyst's verdict last Friday on the news that, despite months of dire warnings from the Obama administration and the Pentagon's allies on Capitol Hill, automatic budget cuts to the U.S. Defense Department would go into effect after all. Bill Kristol, the influential editor of the Weekly Standard, was despondent, writing, "the Republican party has, at first reluctantly, then enthusiastically, joined the president on the road to irresponsibility." But have fiscal scolds really vanquished their neoconservative rivals within the GOP?
Let's roll the tape back to October 2011, when House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon had a simple message for the "supercommittee" tasked with reducing the nation's massive deficit: "not a penny more" from the Pentagon. It was an evocative line in the sand because it contributed to the impression that base Pentagon outlays had already been cut (they hadn't) and that any cuts would imperil U.S. national security (they wouldn't).
But the battle lines were drawn long before the passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA), the legislation that enacted what's become known in Washington as "sequestration." In October 2010, the heads of two conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), joined forces with Kristol's Foreign Policy Initiative to create the Defending Defense project. With a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Kristol, Heritage's Ed Feulner and AEI's Arthur Brooks hoped to fend off Pentagon spending cuts by declaiming that such cuts would threaten global prosperity, open the floodgates for tyrants and miscreants, and undermine the fragile gains which, they claimed, had been achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the concern that excessive spending on America's wars was adding to the fiscal burdens on current and future generations, the three inveighed, somewhat lamely, that "defense spending has increased at a much lower rate than domestic spending in recent years and is not the cause of soaring deficits."
A coalition of conservative and libertarian organizations fired back in a joint letter to House and Senate leaders after the GOP's sweeping victories in the mid-term elections. "Leadership on spending requires commitment that aims to permanently change the bias toward profligacy, not simply stem the tide in the short-term," the letter stated. "True fiscal stewards cannot eschew real spending reform by protecting pet projects in the federal budget. Any such Department of Defense favoritism would signal that the new Congress is not serious about fiscal responsibility and not ready to lead."
As one of the country's most prominent budget hawks, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist, explained at the time: "Voters in the November elections went to the polls to express their concern about one thing only -- explosive government spending. If Members of Congress don't take the mandate to stem government growth seriously by keeping spending cuts on the table for all areas of the federal budget, they will not be asked to stick around to continue to spend taxpayers' money for long."
The open question heading into the fight was whether Republican members of Congress feared their own constituents more than they did the neoconservatives. Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, pro-spending hawks don't always win. "For all the kicking and screaming," explains Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, "it is easier -- even for Republicans -- to cut defense spending than to cut non-defense spending." As an example, de Rugy points to the 1990s, when Republicans held the majority in both houses of Congress and Pentagon spending declined while overall federal spending continued to grow (albeit at a slower rate than before).