On Wednesday, Congress voted to repeal the cut to military pensions for those already in service that was included in the Murray-Ryan budget deal.
This was principally due to mobilization by veterans' groups that pushed both Democrats and Republicans. But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders played a key role, and for Democrats who want to do something real to oppose cuts in domestic spending, it's important to understand what Sanders did. People who want to be serious in opposing domestic cuts may want to use this tactic in the future, since it's one of the few tactics that anyone has come up recently with that has given Democrats any kind of leverage to reverse cuts to domestic spending.
What Sanders did was put forward a bill that paid for restoring the pension cut by taking the money from the Afghanistan war budget, otherwise known as "Overseas and Contingency Operations," or OCO.
This allowed Senate Democrats to get on the playing field with a bill that paid for the pension restoration with cuts elsewhere. This helped give them a credible threat of daring Senate Republicans to vote no on a bill to restore the cut to military pensions. That pressure helped push House Republicans to pass a bill that paid for restoring military pensions by extending the Medicare sequester to 2024, which Senate Democrats then agreed to.
Note that if you want to do something that's not already in the budget, you have three basic choices in theory for how to do it. You can add to the deficit. You can increase revenue to pay for it. Or you can pay for it with cuts elsewhere.
As a practical matter, the first two options have been taken off the table in Washington. You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but as a practical matter, Washington Democrats have given up fighting to increase revenue or to fighting to approve expenditures that add to the deficit. We have seen this in the recent budget battles. When they wanted to extend unemployment insurance, Democrats finally agreed to pay for it with cuts elsewhere. When they wanted to restore the military pension cut, Democrats finally agreed to pay for it with cuts elsewhere.
This framework - and again I stress that Washington Democrats have already accepted this framework, and there is no reason to expect that they will un-accept it - has put Democrats at a disadvantage, because Democrats have had a hard time agreeing to cut elsewhere. Republicans have a ready-made plan to cut elsewhere: cut domestic spending even more. But Democrats don't want to cut domestic spending even more.
If you can't raise revenue, and you can't increase the deficit, and you don't want to cut domestic spending, there's only one place left to look for money.
You have to cut the Pentagon budget.
And the most politically attractive place to cut the Pentagon budget is to cut the war budget, because the war in Afghanistan is so unpopular, and because there's more money in the war budget than would be needed to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
So from now on, when Washington Democrats propose to spend money on something that is not in the budget already, we'll know that they're serious if they propose to take the money from the war budget. If they're not willing to go after the war budget, then they're not serious. And what these Washington Democrats would be saying through their silence on the war budget is that they'd rather spend our tax dollars on keeping tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan than on food stamps, Head Start, or veterans' benefits.
Note that restoring the cut to military pensions was only one element of Sanders' broader veterans' benefits bill, which is overwhelmingly paid for by using the war budget. You can show your support for Bernie's efforts to use the war budget to take care of veterans here.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.