A 12-member bipartisan Congressional committee has until November 23rd to figure out how exactly to trim the debt by some $1.5 trillion dollars over 10 years. Then, they have a matter of weeks to sell that plan to both houses of Congress.
If no agreement is reached, automatic cuts kick in: $600 billion from the military and $600 billion from domestic programs. Both Democrats and Republicans shudder at this arrangement. But how does the Tea Party feel about steep cuts to national defense?
The Tea Party doesn't have a central spokesman or organizing body; it's a loose coalition of people united by beliefs in spending cuts, lower taxes, and smaller government. To try and gauge the mood of Tea Party supporters, I spoke with three people, in different parts of the country, who subscribe to their uniting principles.
"We really need across the board cuts. And nothing can be a sacred cow, nothing can be off limits. And that's going to include defense," said Chris Littleton of Cincinnati, co-founder of the group The Ohio Liberty Council.
Littleton said the defense budget has become bloated. (It's come close to doubling since September 11th, 2001.) Littleton argued that's because the military has lost sight of its Constitutional mission.
"It does not include being the world's police, being the world's peacemaker, or trying to advance our culture or causes around the world as a singular purpose. It's for common defense," said Litleton. "And so if we are not directly threatened, and we are not involved in an altercation, that we need to defend ourselves (from), then we can absolutely scale back our operations from throughout the world. So I'd be for both domestic and foreign military installations brought back, trimmed down, and hopefully many of them even eliminated."
Support for a smaller military runs counter to what many conservative Republicans espouse. But Tea Party supporter Jason Rink — executive director of The Foundation for a Free Society in Austin, Texas — argued that's because Republicans haven't been acting like real conservatives.
"Traditional conservatives, they believed we should have a humble foreign policy, they believed that we shouldn't police the world, they believed that we shouldn't get into foreign wars, and that our defense spending needed to be something that we addressed and we were modest about," said Rink.
The new push to reduce the debt could result in cuts to the Pentagon's budget of up to $1 trillion dollars over a decade. That would be about 14 percent of its operating budget. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said cuts that large would imperil the nation's security. And such cuts would impact tens of thousands of people who work in the defense industry.
But many Tea Party sympathizers say that $1 trillion in cuts being steep… that's an exaggeration.
"I mean I guess steep is really all just perspective," said Michael Boldin, executive director of an activist organization called the 10th Amendment Center in Los Angeles. "I don't know think anyone is really proposing steep cuts and there should be."
Boldin opposed the war in Iraq and the military campaign in Libya. He called them unconstitutional acts. He not only wants to cut the US military budget, he also wants to cut funds for foreign military assistance. Dramatically. The US distributes $14 billion annually in military assistance, most of which goes to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Pakistan.
"I think they (foreign military funds) should be eliminated completely, 100 percent," said Boldin. "Funding one side or another overseas has led to far more problems than it has benefits, and it's time for it to end: morally, economically, and then also constitutionally… I think it's naÃ¯ve to think that we should be so arrogant as to think that we can determine what side is the good side in very complex overseas issues. And I think the historical record, if it hasn't already shown, is that the US has many times taken the wrong side."
But military experts point out that the US government isn't really in the business of picking "the good side." Washington provides military assistance to foreign governments because it perceives such aid to be in the national interest. For example, the US gives aid to Pakistan not necessarily because the leaders are the good guys, but because it's not in America's interest for Pakistan's nuclear-armed government to collapse.
There's another element to foreign assistance: non-military economic aid. That comes out to $34 billion annually for things like food, agricultural development, and AIDS prevention in Africa. Overall, it's about 1 percent of the U.S. budget.
No big surprise: Foreign aid is not very popular among Tea Party supporters.
"We cannot possibly think about trying to help out other countries before we have our own backyards in order. It's not about politics or picking one cause or one country, it needs to be cut across the board," said Chris Littleton of Cincinnati. "This isn't a personal decision, it's a mathematical one. This is a financial decision that has to be made."
I asked Littleton if denying food to starving people or medicine to the sick might be considered heartless?
Littleton responded, "Is it more heartless to keep them dependent on another nation for something? Doesn't that perpetuate the suffering? Doesn't that perpetuate the problems?"
Michael Boldin said, "I support helping people, absolutely support helping people. But I am not under the belief that the US government is a responsible organization to help people. I think that should be left to private individuals, to private organizations."
Foreign aid has generally had the support of Democrats and Republicans. Microsoft founder Bill Gates puts it this way: The small amount we spend helping the world's poorest not only saves millions of lives, it also has an enormous impact on developing economies, which in turn, impacts our economy.
The international relief organization, Oxfam, points out that the main reasons that the US assists poor countries are to enhance national security, promote our economic interests, and provide moral leadership.
But Tea Party members and followers say the best way to enhance national security, promote our economic interests and provide moral leadership is to get our own economic house in order. And that means cut spending by however much you can, wherever you can.
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