Supercommittee Throws in the Towel

Supercommittee Throws in the Towel

The congressional “supercommittee” tasked with reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years made it official this afternoon – they failed.

In a joint statement, the co-chairs of the supercommittee said:  “After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”  Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) are the co-chairs.

The deadline set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 is November 23, but the supercommittee was supposed to make its recommendations available to the public — and their fellow members of Congress — two days in advance, which is today.

What happens next is murky.  Under the Act, the supercommittee’s failure triggers automatic spending cuts totalling $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013.  Half are supposed to come from “defense” discretionary funding and the other half from non-defense discretionary funding and Medicare reforms.  The Medicare reforms are limited to 2 percent.  Social Security and Medicaid are exempt.   The definition of “defense” — whether that means the Department of Defense (DOD) or a broader category of spending that might include the Department of Homeland Security, for example — is open to debate.

It is not only the amount of the cuts, but the fact that they would be applied across-the-board without factoring in the merits of particular programs or activities that is troublesome.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been warningsince he took office this summer about the cataclysmic impact of across-the-board cuts of that size and nature on the military.

Panetta’s allies in Congress agree.   Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is planning to introduce legislation to undo the cuts — officially called “sequestration.”    In a statement, he asserted:  “I will be introducing legislation in the coming days to prevent cuts that will do catastrophic damage to our men and women in uniform and our national security. Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much, have nothing more to give. Secretary Panetta has said he doesn’t want to be the Secretary who hollows out defense. Likewise, I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand.”

While many are focused on the half of the cuts that would come from “defense” — whatever it means — the cuts to the rest of government spending could be equally catastrophic.   Of the $1.2 trillion in savings, $216 billion would be saved by not having to pay interest on that much debt.  According to a Congressional Research Service report, the bottom line is that the annual amount that must be cut from discretionary spending is $109.3 billion, of which half — $54.7 billion — would come from non-defense discretionary spending like NASA and NOAA.

What that level of cuts would mean to NASA’s human spaceflight, science and aeronautics programs, and NOAA’s satellite programs is worrying.   Prioritization within the Administration and Congress will be key, and space advocates undoubtedly hope that programs that promote high-tech jobs and U.S. preeminence in science and technology will be at the top of the list, but in today’s climate, determining who wins and who loses is an unenviable task.

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