A Rare Moment of Budget Honesty on Capitol Hill

Endorsing cuts to both parties pet programs, Rep. Robert Andrews quips: 'My race may have gotten a lot tighter.'

By + More
Rep. Robert Andrews
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews speaks in Camden, N.J.

Buried in a three-hour partisan verbal slugfest Wednesday about how to avoid deep federal spending cuts was a poignant moment. Someone actually offered what sounded like a plan for doing so.

During a House Armed Services Committee session, members of the normally cordial panel did what politicians do best: They talked, screamed, badgered and accused. But then New Jersey Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews spoke up and did something rare in today's Washington: He was honest.

Unless lawmakers send President Obama legislation by Jan. 2 featuring $1.2 trillion in deficit-reduction measures, equal cuts of around $500 billion would be made to national defense and domestic programs. Because the cuts would be made by simply slashing a yet-defined percentage from every non-exempt account, executive branch officials and lawmakers warn the automatic reductions could bring economic havoc and hinder national security.

[Photo Gallery: Nation Gripped by Drought.]

For his part, Andrews let loose with a rant during which he called for a massive legislative plan that would reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion. He didn't hold back. Andrews targeted things Republicans oppose like billions more in Pentagon cuts and tax hikes for the wealthy after detailing changes to domestic programs favored by Democrats.

"In Medicare, I would say people have to wait a little longer to get their Medicare benefits. ... For each year you're under 55 years of age, you have to wait a month to get your Medicare benefits to vest beyond 65," Andrews said as a hush took over the hearing room. "I would say to a person 45 years old, 'You get Medicare benefits when your 65-years-and-10-months old.' And I would do the same thing with Social Security."

Panning the current climate on Capitol Hill under which the parties protect their favorite things and call for deep cuts to those favored by their opponents, Andrews looked toward the ceiling and quipped: "The roof did not cave in on my head when I said those things."

Andrews bluntly called for cuts to other domestic programs like redundant job-training initiatives that receive federal funds. He said he would be willing to trade beach-erosion program cuts--big for his state--for cuts to agriculture subsidies that go to other states.

He's unlikely to make many new friends in Democratic circles with those ideas. But Andrews has some ideas for Republican-favored items that should be cut, too.

The New Jersey lawmaker would raise income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans and designate the increased federal revenues to paying down some of the nation's debt. He also would keep in place a $400 billion reduction to Pentagon spending already under way, and then cut some more.

One place he would find savings is within a nuclear arsenal he says "could blow up the world 24 times." Andrews believes the U.S. atomic arsenal, which is very expensive to maintain, could be both upgraded and downsized.

"I know there are sacred things in American politics that we cannot say," Andrews said sternly. "We need to start saying them."

California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the panel's chairman, applauded Andrews' bluntness. But he also dragged into the spotlight one hurdle to avoiding the $1 trillion in national defense and domestic cuts: a lack of political courage.

"You've presented some items. I applaud your doing that," McKeon told Andrews. "However, many who face elections in November who are in tighter races aren't going to do that."

Andrews is facing Republican foe Greg Horton in a race several political handicappers say he should easily win. But Andrews wondered aloud after calling for Medicare, Social Security, tax and military spending changes and cuts whether that might change: "Well, my race may have gotten a lot tighter."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

  • Bipartisan House Defense Panel Erupts in Shouting Match
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy
  • Obama Administration To Try Again On Taliban Talks