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Are House GOP Freshmen Seriously Interested in Cutting the Defense Budget?

There is no shortage of headlines with a variation on a theme such as: “Tea Party Declares War on Military Spending,” “Tea Partiers Say Defense In Mix For Budget Cuts,” and “Veteran Republicans Fear Tea Party, Liberals Will Unite To Cut Defense.” Much of the media has fostered the narrative that the current crop of … Continued

There is no shortage of headlines with a variation on a theme such as: “Tea Party Declares War on Military Spending,” “Tea Partiers Say Defense In Mix For Budget Cuts,” and “Veteran Republicans Fear Tea Party, Liberals Will Unite To Cut Defense.” Much of the media has fostered the narrative that the current crop of Tea Party-influenced GOP freshmen are gunning to slash the Defense Department’s budget. But the reality, so far, has hardly lived up to that storyline.

According to a new analysis by Heritage Action for America *, the lobbying arm of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, freshman Republicans in the House have, on average, voted against defense cuts more than other House Republicans. At about one third of the discretionary federal budget, the more than $600 billion annual defense budget (and up to $1.2 TRILLION for the entire national security budget, depending on how you count it)—which has doubled in size since 9/11—is not currently facing any serious challenges from House GOP freshmen. It’s not for a lack of numerous proposals, such as the bipartisan Deficit Commission’s detailed defense proposals.

However, you might not know it reading some news reports. To be fair, some news outlets note that “most Tea Party candidates spoke little about national security and the military in fall political campaigns focused on cutting spending over all,” as one New York Times article did in January.

But take, for instance, news coverage the last few weeks on an amendment to cut $450 million in funding for a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter that passed the House (President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as the Bush Administration have for years opposed the second engine). In the wake of that move—which does not mean funding for the second engine is canceled, at least not yet—several news outlets reported that this shows that GOP freshmen are willing to take on defense. That’s not quite right, at least not yet.

It is true that the sponsor of the amendment is second-term Republican Congressman Tom Rooney of Florida. It’s also true that “of the 87 new Republican members, 47 voted to cancel the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while 40 others voted to keep it alive,” as the New York Times reported the fairly close vote. But the votes to cancel carried the day with more Democratic votes than Republican—a not insignificant detail buried near the bottom of theTimes article. This is even more extraordinary considering there are significantly more Republicans than Democrats in the House. Plus, more Republicans voted to keep the engine alive more often than they voted to cancel it. In contrast, almost twice as many Democrats voted to kill the second engine as Democrats who voted to keep it alive.

Despite the actual vote counts, where a majority of House Republicans voted against cancellation, you still saw headlines such as CBS News’s “House GOP Bucks Boehner, Kills Funding for Extra F-35 Engine.” But the reality is most of the House Republicans decidedly did not buck Boehner.

Other outlets implied similar narratives. In Politico's “How a sophomore beat Speaker John Boehner,” Mike Allen wrote that “the vote on the amendment to scuttle the program was 233-198, with 47 Republican freshmen tipping the balance.” Did the GOP freshmen tip the balance or did House Democrats lopsidedly supporting a Democratic White House’s view on the JSF second engine tip the balance? It’s hard to tell, but if you rely on news reports, you’d believe the former.

Think the Politico piece was an isolated event? The typically straight-shooting Associated Press got sucked into the Tea Party-oriented vortex, although they linked the vote with Obama’s stance on the engine. The AP’s headline: “Obama, GOP freshmen win in jet engine budget fight.”

The AP leans partly on the fact that in May 2010, the last time there was a vote on the second engine, “only 57 Republicans voted to cut off funds,” to justify its headline. But while it is true that this year there was close to an even split between House Republicans, last year, Democrats went from being roughly evenly split on the second engine to lopsidedly supporting its cancellation.

Heritage: Veteran GOP Lawmakers More Likely to Cut Defense Spending Than Freshmen

The so-called “Lucky 13” freshman GOP lawmakers on the influential House Armed Services Committee were not very likely to vote for cutting the JSF second engine. The House Armed Services Committee is the House panel that authorizes the Defense Department’s appropriations—on defense matters, its views are typically given great deference by the House as a whole. Among the Lucky 13, 69 percent voted to keep the second engine alive—among House Republicans overall, 54 percent voted the same. The Lucky 13 gained some notoriety after Bloomberg reported that they were soliciting campaign contributions from large defense contractors at a fundraiser the day after the President’s budget was released and days before the JSF second engine amendment vote. The Lucky 13 appear to have quickly warmed to the ways of Washington, as other GOP freshmen have.

The “Lucky 13” are Republican Reps. Vicky Hartzler (MO), Scott Palazzo (MS), Austin Scott (GA), Jon Runyan (NJ), Mo Brooks (AL), Chris Gibson (NY), Tim Griffin (AR), Joe Heck (NV), Scott Rigell (VA), Martha Roby (AL), Bobby Schilling (IL), Allen West (FL) and Todd Young (IN).

A broader analysis of thirteen votes by the Heritage Foundation’s lobbying arm found that freshmen House GOP lawmakers were less likely than veteran GOP lawmakers to cut defense spending. According to Heritage:

One of the major stories following the debate over the Continuing Resolution (CR) last week has been how the House successfully voted to cut funding for the Joint Strike Fighter’s alternate engine with the help of a large block of the new Freshmen. One such story came out earlier this week from The Hill, which said some Republicans fear the new Freshman will continue to hack away at the defense budget. This story, and others like it, miss the bigger picture.

During the course of the floor debate, there ended up being 13 votes on amendments to cut defense funding. All but the above JSF alt-engine amendment failed to pass. So where were all of the Tea Party, defense-cutting Freshman on those votes?

An analysis of the voting patterns on those 13 votes found that the Freshmen were not the ones leading the charge to cut defense within the GOP. There were just 14 Republicans willing to cut defense more than 50% of the time and only one was a Freshmen. Of the 29 Republicans who voted to protect defense less than 65% of the time, only six were Freshmen.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were 78 Republicans who opposed amendments to cut defense 100% of the time and another 47 who did so at least 92% of the time. In total 41 Freshmen were a part of these two groups, nearly half of their entire class. Clearly, it is too soon to say the Freshmen are leading the charge to cut defense.

It appears that many of the GOP freshmen have bought into the “Defending Defense” campaign which is the name of a joint Heritage-American Enterprise Institute-Foreign Policy Institute effort to exempt the Defense Department from the kinds of fiscal restraint the Tea Party proposes for most of the rest of the federal government. Heritage has a robust lobbying effort to steer freshman Republicans towards its views on defense.

To get a sense of Heritage’s approach take a look at a recent Heritage memo called “Taking a Scalpel to the Defense Budget” by Heritage analyst MacKenzie Eaglen. Despite the name of her memo, she somehow is unable to propose any defense spending worth cutting. Eaglen does propose some specific projects “that should be considered for funding elsewhere in the U.S. government” and some specific programs that “demand further examination and oversight”—but she does not explicitly recommend any cuts whatsoever, not even with a scalpel.

Perhaps more articles should have headlines like “Defense Industry Woos GOP Freshmen in Hopes of Fighting Cuts,” an article by reporter John T. Bennett which appeared in The Hill. Similarly, the New York Times did some great probing in January on the views of some of the Tea Party-linked Lucky 13. From the end of the Times story:

In an interview, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a freshman Republican from Missouri who was backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said that her priorities were jobs and “reining in runaway spending.” But when asked about the Pentagon budget, Ms. Hartzler, who defeated former Rep. Ike Skelton, the longtime Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that “now is not the time to talk about defense cuts while we are engaged in two theaters with men and women in harm’s way.”

Ms. Hartzler said she questioned the $78 billion in cuts to the military budget over the next five years, and added, “I will be a staunch defender of military installations in my district and across the country.” Ms. Hartzler’s district has two large military bases, Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber and a new ground-control station for unmanned Predator drones.

Rep. Scott Rigell, a Republican newcomer from Virginia who at first sparred with the Tea Party but then signed a pledge supporting many of its positions, said that he, too, was committed to a strong military and the spending it required. In an interview after the hearing, he said that “as a very first priority, it is our constitutional duty to stand an army.”

Mr. Rigell said he supported in the Pentagon budget “any responsible, wise reduction that can clearly be identified as waste,” but needed more specific information before he could judge where to cut. His son, he said, is a member of the Marine reserve and drives an amphibious assault vehicle, an earlier version of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. On Mr. Gates’s decision to eliminate the E.F.V., Mr. Rigell said, “The abruptness of the decision is concerning me.”

Mr. Rigell, who represents a district that is economically dependent on its military installations, spoke against plans to move one of five nuclear aircraft carriers based in Norfolk to Florida, taking with it 10,000 jobs.

As much as possible and far more than they currently do, reporters and their editors need to break out of reporting on competing narratives and instead focus on what actually happens—then contrast that with what lawmakers say. POGO’s Scott Amey recently did this withPresident Obama’s backtracking on transparency in contracting. As with the early days of the Obama administration, much of the media is enamored with the Tea Party. This is not because they necessarily endorse their beliefs (although some on the rightward side of the media spectrum do)—but because they offer fresh opportunities for the media to create new narratives. It’s also easier to rely on quotes from political talking heads than it is to do a hard assessment of where things are. But while what politicos think is important to know, hard assessments better serve the American public.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Tea Party-influenced GOP freshmen in the House won’t eventually aggressively seek to find cuts in the Defense Department’s budget. But it does mean that, so far, they are not as aggressive in seeking defense cuts as some news articles suggest.

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