WASHINGTON — Meet Robert Gates, also known as The Leading Indicator.
The defense secretary, who is noted among his colleagues for his special closeness with President Barack Obama, stepped out in front of other department heads this week by announcing his plans to trim Pentagon spending in a major way next year.
You could hear the complaints all the way from Norfolk to the Washington suburbs, as Virginia politicians of both parties realized whose constituents would be idled by Gates’ plans. What has not yet sunk in is that this is simply the opening wedge in what will probably be the overriding issue of 2011-12, the struggle to discipline the federal budget.
Cutting Pentagon spending
In his announcement Monday, Gates said he wants to shutter the entire U.S. Joint Forces Command, an interservice innovation with about 2,800 military and civilian employees and 3,300 contractors, as a down payment on a long-term strategy to cut Pentagon and intelligence contracting by 10 percent a year over the next three years.
Along with changes in military procurement plans, previously announced, and new trims in the flag officers’ ranks, Gates has begun to outline the steps he thinks necessary to fight two wars even in an era of budget austerity.
What is yet to come are similar announcements from the heads of the major civilian agencies who also have been told by the president: Hoard your dollars for your most essential tasks, and understand that lower-priority projects will have to be sacrificed.
Those announcements will be trickling out later this autumn, as departments get their orders from the White House Office of Management and Budget. And the yelps of pain will signal a new round in the struggle between the executive branch and Congress.
The decision to go after the runaway budget deficits of the late Bush years and the carry-over flood of red ink in the recession-crippled budgets Obama has submitted in his first two years stems from multiple sources.
• The scare that Greece threw into European Union finances and the possibility of China and other creditors applying similar pressure to the United States is one nudge. Another is the probability that the fiscal sanity commission appointed by the president will use its December report to apply further heat on Obama to get serious about deficit reduction.
• The likelihood of expanded Republican numbers on Capitol Hill, with the newly elected members having campaigned on promises to curb spending, may make it easier for Obama to do what he is already inclined to do. He and Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner already can see past the inflammatory rhetoric of the current congressional campaign to the likelihood that they will be negotiating toward a budget deal come next year.
But applying the brakes to runaway federal spending will not be easy. As the first reaction to Gates’ announcement showed, whatever their proclaimed ideology, local politicians will squeal when their own constituents feel the budget ax.
Opposition from Republicans
Among the first to challenge Gates’ decision to eliminate the Virginia-based military command was Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican who has not hesitated to trim spending proposals by his Democratic predecessors.
He was joined by the state’s two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, who talk a good game of budgetary responsibility but squirm when it hits home.
Obama may have thought it was tough work to push Congress into spending all that he wanted for economic stimulus, education and other causes close to his heart. He is about to learn that nudging the lawmakers to trim the budget may be even tougher.