Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said legislation he will introduce Wednesday would make a modest contribution to deficit reduction by trimming $167 billion in national security spending and $153 billion in domestic spending over the next eight years, beginning in 2014. More significantly, he said, the bill also would turn off the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts mandated over the next several months, which the Obama administration and most lawmakers agree will be damaging because of their arbitrary nature.
The cuts, known as the sequester, are set to begin Friday and have touched off waves of finger-pointing in Washington over who's to blame for them and dire predictions over their impact, especially on the U.S. military's ability to fulfill its missions.
Smith, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said his bill provides a pathway for muting the angry back-and-forth and shutting down the cuts before they run too deep.
But he has no co-sponsors, and any further reductions in the Defense Department's budget are likely to be non-starters for most Republicans. The military's budget is already facing a $487 billion spending cut over the next 10 years, mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
"I am mindful of the fact that this is going to be a very, very difficult sell," Smith said.
Despite the warnings, much of the sequester cuts to hit the Pentagon and other federal agencies come in later years and could be offset by spending reductions in programs that are wasteful or behind schedule. Even with the sequester, the Pentagon will still maintain an annual budget of well over $500 billion a year for the rest of the decade.
Smith said the idea behind the sequester was to propose cuts to discretionary spending—which covers federal agency budgets for everything from the military to food safety inspections—that would be so unpopular that Democrats and Republicans would resolve their differences on tax reform and how to generate savings from mandatory spending programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.
"Apparently, however uncomfortable watching the discretionary budget be tortured is, it is not as unpalatable as addressing the broader issue," Smith said.