Divided GOP must see budget reality

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by House Democrats, calls on GOP colleagues to pass a funding bill for the Homeland Security Department that does not contain provisions aimed at blocking President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington5. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are now in a standoff: Who will be the first to acknowledge there will be no defunding of the president’s executive order on immigration? Both the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader know it is true, but neither wants to be the first to close down the kabuki dance going on in the Senate by introducing a clean bill. Eventually one of them will, so perhaps they should flip a coin — or simply announce together that the hope for getting rid of the order before the president leaves office rests with lawsuits. You know — go out on a limb and admit reality.

Republicans would be wise to avoid these useless standoffs for the remainder of the president’s term. There are numerous instances in which the base will be calling for one result, in part to fight back against the president. But he is soon to be the ex-president. And Republicans must keep in mind that the course they set now will have ramifications well after he leaves. There is no place where this is more true than in defense spending. If they accomplish only one thing, it should be this: Stop using short-term budget deficits as an excuse not to fund defense. As Eric Edelman of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Jim Talent of the American Enterprise Institute write on the Foreign Policy Initiative website:

“Until recently, Congress had at least a political excuse for not removing the caps on defense. The House and Senate were controlled by different parties, making common action on anything quite difficult, and national security was not a priority issue in the minds of the public.

“But the environment has changed. The Republicans now have complete control of Congress, and the events of the last year have awakened the American people to the risks that are accumulating around the world. National security will be a major issue in the next presidential election. Candidates of both parties are quite likely to attack the defense policy of the last four years, for two reasons. First, that policy is a poster child for exactly the kind of bipartisan Washington dysfunction that voters hate. Second, no one who contemplates exercising the responsibilities of the presidency, and who is not named Barack Obama, wants to try to defend American security with a military which, in the panel’s words, will be at ‘high risk of not being able to execute the national defense strategy.’ ”

In short, whether or not they can obtain additional savings on the domestic side, Republicans must fund defense adequately. The president wants to make defense spending a hostage to tax hikes, and Republicans have resisted that idea, but by the same token Republicans should not make it hostage to green eyeshade bookkeeping.

Even better, Republicans can get rid of some obvious instances of corporate cronyism — thereby enhancing populist credentials — to help fund national security. Really, is the green jobs industry or specialized segment of any industry worth the federal government’s support (via tax credits or special breaks) while our armed services get far below what multiple secretaries of defense have explained is the bare minimum that is acceptable?

But, the GOP hard-liners may say, the party needs to keep all those loopholes to trade for lower rates down the road. This is equally daft. Tax rates can be reduced and should be through pro-growth and pro-family tax reform, but if anyone imagines that is going to be accomplished during this presidency without a massive tax increase, they are kidding themselves. So why keep holding a chit (tax loopholes) that can never be played with this president while we underfund defense?

When the next president comes along, one strongly suspects the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 will be changed, if not discarded altogether. It is not controlling our debt, but instead making defense and legitimate domestic spending a scapegoat. Democrats dislike it; Republicans know it is hollowing out the military. Frankly, 2016 hopefuls should already be explaining what they will replace it with — and what their priorities are (Keep paying rich people the same Social Security benefits as poor people? Keep underfunding defense?). In the meantime, when we have virulent enemies, we need to stop dangerously underfunding national security.

Republicans often manage to get themselves stuck in a political and intellectual cul-de-sac. They will have to get out of the current one on Homeland Security funding, but need to avoid a worse one, namely refusing to adequately fund defense because of misguided fidelity to the noxious BCA.

Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.