Opinion: GOP Should Welcome the Spending Cuts They Bargained For

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Republicans’ initial support for the sequestration cuts that are about to rein in Washington spending was a lapse in judgment bound to be a PR nightmare. But the party of fiscal discipline doesn't do itself any favors by running from these cuts now.

Rep. Buck McKeon, for instance, told Politico that he regrets backing the measures and other GOP lawmakers like Susan Collins have expressed their displeasure with the outcome too. Whatever the short-term consequences, Republicans have to stand their ground now. And if that helps to save the government from financial ruin, it might all have been worth it.

Republicans lobbied for the Budget Control Act, part of a last-minute negotiation to end last summer’s debt ceiling crisis, to include a sequestration mandate requiring $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and more over the next decade if Congress fails to agree on a plan for equal savings before January 2, 2013. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 15 percent of the cuts would come from entitlement spending, 43 percent from defense, and the other 42 percent from non-defense spending. But the prospect of 2 million lost jobs and 9 percent unemployment now have the GOP’s congressional leadership predicting catastrophe and blaming President Obama.

The GOP’s main complaint now is the extent to which the proposed cuts could affect the Pentagon, along with other defense-related jobs and manufacturing. Sequestration could divert $492 billion over the next decade from the Defense Department—10 percent of its budget. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Hacker groups manage to function with a handful of people. But the DOD claims to need 140,000 to secure the Web alone. This could force it to economize a little. The cuts are also expected to force a 100,000-man reduction in troop size. That might be a good excuse to get out of Afghanistan and to close some of the useless US bases in Europe and elsewhere. And there’s no shame in that either: It’s restructuring, not retreating.

But here’s the craziest part: For all the hoopla about “catastrophic” cuts, the Number One drain on the federal budget—welfare spending—is almost exempt from sequestration. Under Obama, millions of people have been added to the food stamp rolls, Bill Clinton’s welfare-to-work requirements have been gutted, and the number of people claiming disability insurance has soared to 8.7 million—more than the whole population of New York City! But the projected $171 billion cut to entitlement spending amounts to just 0.6 percent of the $26 trillion that the government will be spending on welfare programs between now and 2021, according to the CBO. Yep. That’s zero percent. Leave it to Washington, huh?

It speaks ill of the GOP’s congressional leadership that it agreed to such a lopsided stab at austerity. But this is a chance for the Republicans to reclaim the mantle of fiscal discipline.

Democrats will make that as hard as possible. I predict no shortage of heartwarming commercials depicting this or that helpless person rising from the ashes of sorrow with the help of one federal government program or another. But a national debt of $16 trillion is insurmountable. Congress has been running trillion-dollar deficits since 2009. Something has to happen, and it has to happen now. The spending cuts have to start somewhere. If not now, when? If not this, what?