Shortly after noon last Tuesday, Dick Cheney slipped out of an elevator and into the Lyndon Baines Johnson room where Republican senators hold a weekly lunch. His mission: convince them that $700 billion of automatic defense spending cuts, put in place by 2011’s debt limit deal, had to be overturned. His audience, judging by the bursts of applause, was awfully receptive. As they left, they paused to tell reporters just how convincing Cheney had been.
“One thing that the vice president pointed out,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., “was when you make these cuts across the board in the way that sequestration does, it's not only the impact on today, it will make a long-term impact on the Defense Department.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., translated Cheney’s argument that defense spending is “not a spigot you can turn on and turn off, that you need to keep money flowing in a predictable way so you can plan for the next war.”*
There was only a small path between the senators, their scrums, and the exits. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., found that path and called an elevator. Only one reporter noticed him and started asking for details from inside the Cheney seminar.
“It was a private meeting,” said Paul. “I’m not going to talk about it.” The reporter tried again. “Right, again, it was a private meeting.” In the few seconds before the elevator arrived, you could read between the lines. Paul, unlike most of his peers, was not going along with Cheney.
On Thursday, the freshman senator met with a small group of reporters and foreign policy analysts to explain himself further.
“Most people in our conference,” said Paul, “are on the side [that thinks] that they need to do anything now to avoid the military sequester. I think there is a little bit of irony in that most of them voted for the military sequester. I didn’t vote for it. They all voted to raise the debt ceiling with a military sequester, and now they’re all basically caterwauling about it.”
The sequester was basically designed for caterwaulers. In order to extend the debt limit through to 2013, most Republicans and Democrats eventually agreed to $1.4 trillion of “triggered” cuts—sequesters. Half of the money would be taken out of domestic discretionary spending over 10 years; half would be taken from the defense budget over 10 years, a slash of around 8 percent. “It was designed to be painful,” explained Sen. Harry Reid, so that the “supercommittee” would cut even more from the budget, in targeted ways. That would have pre-empted the sequester.
But the supercommittee failed and Congress—largely Republicans—started testing out ways of saving a defense budget that reached $608 billion this year. In May, the Republican House narrowly passed a “sequester replacement” that shunted all the cuts over to the discretionary side.
“They seem to say, ‘Well, we are for certain revisions to make the military more efficient,’ ” said Paul. “I’m of the belief that nothing around you will ever be efficient unless the top line number is lower. So, they don’t like what they call sequester. To me, that means that the top line number is lower, and if you really believe in savings in the military budget or else you’d have to find the savings, you’d be forced to find the savings. If they could offset it with true one-to-one spending cuts somewhere else, I might consider supporting that. If it’s like most of the games they play around here—they give us cuts over 10 years to pay for something over one year—I’m not going to vote for that, because really, we’re going back on what we promised the American people during that whole battle was that we’re going to be more fiscally responsible.”
Paul didn’t take a position on the Ryan “sequester replacement.” That plan won’t make it through the Senate, anyway. But he disagreed with it in spirit. “Conservatives defend military spending,” he said. “Liberals defend domestic spending. The idea [is] that both sides get together and compromises and we reduce all spending … and right now, and really for the last 50 years, we’ve done the opposite. Our compromise has always been: We raise military spending and we raise domestic welfare spending. So when people say we’re not compromising, they’re missing it completely. We’re compromising all the time to spend more money.”
What about the Cheney argument? The former vice president is really only the most famous, most political person making it. The same day he toured the hill, Lockheed’s president made the same pitch. How are the politicians of 2012 supposed to know what the military will need for future conflicts?
“I think you do need to plan ahead,” said Paul. “Start planning in advance, but that doesn’t mean it can only be done with X dollars.” That hasn’t been proven to him. “Look at [the idea of] auditing the Pentagon. They’ve been talking about having an audit for 30 years probably. They’ve now said it’s coming in 2017. And my guess is that in 2016 it’s going to be 2024, in 2023 they’ll tell us it’s going to be 2030. But I bet you if we said next year you’ve got to meet this sequester, maybe then all of a sudden they’ll say ‘Well why don’t we jettison some of the crap here we’re doing we don’t need?’ They’ll never do it unless their top line number is ever reduced.”
The debt limit passed without Paul’s vote. He’s threatened to filibuster deals that appalled him before, then decided against it. If and when Republicans try and jam back the defense money, they are not counting on Paul’s support. He knows that.
“There are people who say, ‘oh, we will do this if we’re ever in charge. We’re going to do it in a much more streamline fashion.’ Well. We’ve been in charge. And it never changed when we were in charge.”
Correction, July 23, 2012: This article originally misspelled Lindsey Graham's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)