File this under cynical genius. The best way to protect the defense budget may be for the congressional "supercommittee" to fail, triggering $600 billion in defense cuts, because such a drastic reduction will be totally unenforceable and probably undermined by Congress, said the Pentagon's comptroller during former President George W. Bush's administration.
If the super committee cannot reach an agreement on $1 trillion of discretionary spending cuts by Thanksgiving, a "sequestration" mechanism will force $600 billion in cuts to defense over 10 years, along with another mandated $600 billion in cuts to entitlement programs. This "trigger" was part of the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, and was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.
Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department's comptroller and chief financial officer from 2001 to 2004 under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told The Cable today that the trigger is so drastic and unpalatable that those who are trying to protect the defense budget should actually welcome it, because Congress and the administration would surely find a way around it -- as they did during a similar situation in 1988. Zakheim noted that, back then, Congress simply passed a law to undo the previous legislation that would have forced the cuts.
"If there's sequestration, Congress has a year to move out from under it," he said. "If the supercommittee actually strikes a deal [that includes some defense cuts], it will be exceedingly difficult to undo the deal."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on the other hand, has called the trigger a "doomsday mechanism" and testified recently that if implemented, it would cause "catastrophic damage to the military and its ability to protect this country."
Zakheim emphasized he was only speaking for himself, not for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, whom he advises, or his son Roger Zakheim, who leads a task force on protecting the defense budget and works on the staff of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), a key critic of defense cuts.
Whether the super committee reaches a deal of not, Panetta will still have to start implementing the $450 billion in defense cuts over 10 years, as mandated by the April deal to avoid a government shutdown. Panetta told the New York Times in an interview today that he is putting sacred cows like military healthcare and benefits on the table, and is even thinking about shrinking the fighting force.
"There will be some huge political challenges," he said. "When you reduce defense spending, there's likely to be base closures, possible reduction in air wings."
Some defense cuts are expected if the super committee reaches a deal, despite the threat by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to walk away from the panel if it tried to cut defense. Kyl later walked back that threat, clarifying that he was just "making an offhand remark that [defense cuts are] not what I'm on the committee for."