Congressional Democrats on the budget-cutting "supercommittee" want to count $1 trillion that the United States will not spend fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years as "savings," even though there was never a plan to extend the wars that long in the first place.
House Assistant Democratic leader and supercommittee member James Clyburn (D-SC) mentioned this plan on Fox News Sunday, describing it as part of the supercommittee's efforts to agree on $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years before its Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans have supported this idea in the past but as of yet, not within the context of the supercommittee's deliberations.
"We believe and the CBO believes that there is around $917 billion to be saved over the next 10 years from the overseas contingency account. And we ought to count that," Clyburn said.
The problem with Clyburn's idea is that the money he is referring to -- emergency spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was never budgeted to remain at current levels over the next ten years. The money can only be counted as "savings" when compared to CBO projections from last March, which were based on a mathematical formula -- not the actual future costs of the wars.
However, it never has been anybody's plan to maintain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 10 years, so the "savings" are completely illusory.
The White House used this gimmick in September, when it released its $4.4 trillion plan to cut the deficit. The gimmick was also used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the plan he released last July to avert a debt-ceiling crisis. Paul Ryan's budget last April also included this savings in its deficit reduction calculation, which was supported by 235 House Republicans and 40 Senate Republicans.
Clyburn also said the supercommittee Democrats are interested in spending the war "savings."
"We ought to use that savings to plow it back in to fix Social Security, that will allow it to be sovereign for another 75 years, to plow it into job creation programs that would get people back to work, and paying taxes, and off of food stamps and off of unemployment," he said.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have cost more than $1 trillion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service -- were completely funded by off-budget borrowing and classified as "emergency spending," meaning that eliminating those costs does not actually return any money to the Treasury.
"Isn't that a classic Washington budget gimmick, to count savings on money that wasn't going to be spent anyway?" asked Fox host Chris Wallace.
Clyburn responded that these savings were more realistic than counting future economic growth as revenue, which is part of the Republican approach inside the supercommittee.
"It sounds to me like you guys have a lot of work to do in 10 days," Wallace said.
Two top Senate GOP defense hawks laid out for The Cable how they plan to save the defense budget -- if the congressional "supercommittee" fails to reach an agreement, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts over ten years.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are part of a larger effort to protect the defense budget from the "sequestration" mechanism, which would automatically be activated if the supercommittee fails to agree by Thanksgiving on $1.2 trillion of discretionary spending cuts over 10 years. They sent a letter last week to the Pentagon asking for a detailed analysis of the consequences for the military if the trigger is pulled.
"The secretary of defense and all the service chiefs say that it would do irreparable damage to our national security, so obviously we need to do something about it," McCain told The Cable on Tuesday. "My intent is that sequestration on national defense will not take place."
McCain said he would introduce and support a law to undo the Budget Control Act of 2011, which codified the deal to raise the debt ceiling.
"We'll do everything we can to prevent [the trigger] being implemented," McCain said. "You can't bind future Congresses."
The threat of large defense cuts, along with a parallel trigger that would cut entitlements, was intended to be so objectionable that the supercommittee would have an incentive to make a deal. When asked, McCain rejected the idea that by undermining the trigger, he and Graham are taking pressure off the supercommittee to make the required bipartisan cuts.
"There is sufficient pressure on the supercommittee, they will not be swayed either way by our concern about sequestration of national defense," McCain said.
Graham went into more detail about what hawks will seek as a replacement for the defense trigger.
"I hope the supercommittee can do its job, but we can't just live on hope around here. So if they fail, what do we do?" Graham said. "If the committee fails, I am not going to allow the triggers to be pulled that would shoot the Defense Department in the head."
Graham said he would put forth a substitute to the triggers, "something where the whole country shares in the failure of the supercommittee, not just the Defense Department and Medicare providers."
A scrum of reporters cornered supercommittee member Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) coming out of the Tuesday Democratic caucus lunch, and your humble Cable guy elbowed his way to the front of the pack. We decided to first ask several questions about the IAEA report on Iran, to the chagrin of the other reporters desperate for supercommittee quotes.
When Kerry did turn to answering questions about the supercommittee, he said, "We've got some distance to travel and we're working very hard to do that."
Kerry said he was not "optimistic," but he was "hopeful," the super ommittee would succeed.
"Everybody's working in ... uh ... good faith," he said, with a wry grin on his face.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.