Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says budget cuts aimed squarely at the Pentagon would be disastrous. There is no reason to believe he is exaggerating. The only question is whether Congress, facing an acid test of its ability to work on behalf of the country, is up to the job. There is reason to doubt it, but either way, Americans deserve to know the answer before November's elections.
The Pentagon was set up for massive budget cuts by the deal struck last summer when Congress couldn't agree on a mechanism to avoid defaulting on the federal debt. So, it kicked the can down the road, raising the limit and establishing a "super committee" to produce a deficit-reduction package. That committee was to agree to a deal by Thanksgiving 2011 or set into motion a plan to produce $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, with half coming from the military. There was no deal, thus, Panetta's warning.
Those budget cuts would kick in this January, two months after Americans choose a president and a new Congress. The general expectation is that Congress will take this matter up in the lame duck session after the election, after Americans have made critical decisions about who they want leading the country. That is as intolerable as it is predictable.
It didn't have to come to this. President Obama empaneled a bipartisan commission — led by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former President Clinton's one-time chief of staff, Erskine Bowles — to point the way toward deficit reduction. Incredibly, Obama backed away from its recommendations and Republicans, aghast at the committee's recommendations on tax increases, were as silent as death itself. Nobody was willing to give an inch to make the country stronger.
Obama and the Democrats did better last fall, offering to negotiate painful budget cuts in exchange for modest tax increases. Had Republicans come to the table as adults ready to work, the catastrophe awaiting the Pentagon would have been avoided. They didn't. The Thanksgiving deadline passed and now a crisis is in the offing.
Few people really expect Congress to allow those cuts to take place, but few also would want to bet the house on it, given Congress' recent history and, in particular, the Republican Party's pathetic deference to the tea party absolutists who are turning it into a caricature of a political organization.
Whatever happens, though, it is of obvious fundamental interest to voters of all parties as they consider whom they will support in November's elections. Regardless of where voters stand on the bedrock issues of budget cuts, tax increases and the need to preserve critical domestic and military programs, they have a compelling interest in seeing those issues decided before Nov. 6.
"Trust me," the politicians will say. But history shows what will happen. Momentarily free from re-election pressures, they will then be free to suddenly "evolve" over the eight weeks that remain before the blade comes down. They need to be held accountable now, before the election. A promise of how they will vote then isn't worth the oxygen it will take to make it.