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Dear Congress: When the Supercommittee Fails, those Defense Cuts Really Will Happen

With the November 23 deadline nearly upon us, there’s a broad consensus that the Joint Select (Super) Committee won’t get anything done, which means that the clock will start on a “trigger”—that is, a series of budget cuts, including cuts to Defense spending and Medicare providers, that are scheduled to begin taking effect in January 2013. Since the trigger was devised to be unpopular with everyone in order to force Democrats and Republicans into making a deal, the next and obvious step will be for various factions in congress to try to eliminate the portions of the trigger they don’t like. Republicans and hawkish Democrats are out of the gate first, already saying that they’ll try to eliminate the scheduled cuts in defense spending.

Several people, including Matt Yglesias, expect the Democrats to cave and the defense cuts portion trigger to be defused. Similarly, TNR’s Tim Noah has argued that Congress has successfully wriggled itself out of automatic legislative triggers countless times in the past and there’s no indication that this time will be any different. And given that there is a clear majority in Congress in favor of keeping defense spending high, and that Democrats haven’t exactly shown a pattern of standing tough against accusations that cutting even small amounts from the Pentagon would show that they’re weak, one might believe that it’s only a matter of time before large cuts are canceled. But the trigger is going to be a lot harder to eliminate than many believe.

Assuming the super committee fails, there are basically four ways that Congress can prevent the triggered defense cuts:

1. They can pass a bill to eliminate the defense cuts and pay for it by raising taxes.

2. They can eliminate the defense cuts and pass other spending cuts to pay for it.

3. They can eliminate the defense cuts and do nothing else, and just live with the higher deficit.

4. They can eliminate the defense cuts and pretend to pay for it with phony budget shenanigans.

The first two options available to lawmakers seem unlikely to happen in a divided congress like our current one. As Ezra Klein has noted, “the two parties would probably like, in the abstract, to defuse the trigger, but arguments over how best to do that could again lead to inaction. And inaction means the trigger goes off.” The first of these options is really the gut check for Republicans who believe in the magic idea that ideology trumps mathematics: They really must choose in some cases between spending for things they like, tax cuts, and deficits, and the answer, invariably is something that doesn’t involve increasing taxes. Besides, if most Republicans were unwilling to make a deal on raising taxes in order to preserve Pentagon spending during the recent negotiations, then there no reason for them to suddenly change their minds after the super committee expires.

The same thing is true, however, for Democrats when it comes to the second possibility. Yes, Republicans are certainly likely to pass a bill through the House canceling the defense cuts and making up for the lost savings by slashing money from programs that Democrats like. But why should we expect Dems to cave? After all, if they were going to cave on such a bad deal eventually, why wouldn’t they have done so back in July in order to get the debt limit deal in place, or right now through the super committee process?

What, then, of the possibility that congress will just agree to get rid of the cuts and let the deficit go up, either openly or through the use of budget gimmicks? On the surface, this seems the most likely scenario, since it’s probably the case that relatively few members from either party actually care very much about the size of the deficit. But it’s here that the congressional math quickly gets tricky: While there are plenty of Democrats who support high levels of Pentagon spending, there are also plenty who would jump at the chance to cut it. Likewise, while there are plenty of Republicans who don’t mind looking the other way on the deficit if it achieves other goals, there are quite a few Tea Partiers who would be very reluctant to vote that way. As a result, a vote to defuse the defense cuts trigger at the expense of the deficit would most likely pit centrist Republicans and Democrats against the more ideologically extreme wings of their parties, and there’s no guarantee which coalition would win. Remember, too, as we head into another election cycle, that Republicans are still awfully afraid of Tea Party primary challenges and of charges that they’ve gone Washington; for a lot of them, avoiding those problems may overshadow everything else.

As for hiding the deficit behind budgeting gimmicks, the same problem applies—and in fact maybe even more so. Indeed, the Tea Party has long railed against what they believe to be the deceptive bookkeeping of politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington. And for purists like the Tea Party, procedures can matter. A lot. Tea Party activists might therefore be even more upset about increasing the deficit through clever budgeting tactics than it would by congress openly increasing the deficit to save the Pentagon.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s no chance for congress to avoid the trigger and its significant cuts in defense spending. First of all, the votes could fall the other way, with the middle able to defeat the extremes. Second, I suppose it’s also possible that Democrats could end up caving after all. And the third, most likely scenario is that the 2012 elections could upend the balance of power and the chances of both sides reaching a deal or one side being able to enact its preferences may change. After all, even if sequestration does take place in January 2013, Congress can always reverse it soon after. But until that point, my guess is that the trigger is going to prove to be a tough obstacle indeed.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.