This year's race in the 5th Congressional District is twisting political norms when it comes to defense spending.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, running for a fourth term, has a long record of pushing spending cuts as a way to shrink the federal debt — no surprise for a Republican. But Mulvaney veers outside traditional GOP orthodoxy in saying defense programs should be subject to that same belt-tightening.
“If we are going to balance the budget, then all spending needs to be scrutinized, including the Pentagon,” Mulvaney wrote recently in a Facebook message to constituents.
It's a controversial position for a Republican to take in a conservative, Southern state with several military bases, thousands of active and retired military personnel and a general affinity for a strong national defense.
The Democrat running for the 5th District seat, Fran Person of Tega Cay, has criticized Mulvaney’s position and opposes defense cuts, giving his party a rare opportunity to claim the pro-military mantel.
“Congressman Mulvaney on some issues is in a very vulnerable spot,” Person said in a recent interview. “He supported the sequester cuts, which I wholeheartedly disagree with because they gutted the military when it was needed the most.”
The sequester, approved as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, refers to automatic across-the-board spending cuts that took effect after Congress failed to reach a less drastic deficit-reduction plan. The goal was to trim $1.2 trillion over 10 years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs.
Congress has eased some sequester-related spending caps in recent years, so the cuts haven't been as deep or catastrophic as had been predicted.
Mulvaney has criticized the cuts as indiscriminate because they affected important Pentagon programs and unnecessary ones alike. But he said they were still better than no cuts at all, in the face of more than $19 trillion in federal debt.
“The debt represents the greatest existential threat that this nation faces,” Mulvaney wrote in his recent Facebook post. “More than ISIS or Russia or China, more than domestic or international terrorism, more than economic slowdowns (and certainly more than global warming!). All spending needs to be on the table if we are going to face that challenge.”
Mulvaney also has a record of forcing votes on the House floor that would scale back military spending. Taxpayer watchdog groups have lauded his efforts, while some in his own party have criticized them.
In 2013, more Democrats than Republicans voted for Mulvaney's amendment to reduce the Overseas Contingency Operation fund at the Pentagon by $3.5 billion. He argued that the fund, created to finance combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was unnecessarily increased by $5 billion for non-war spending.
That same year, he proposed cutting $20.4 billion in federal spending, including from the military, to pay for Hurricane Sandy disaster aid, but the amendment failed.
“Republicans lose a lot of credibility when we aren't willing to look at every penny that we spend," Mulvaney wrote on Facebook. "It makes it look like we only oppose big government when it spends money on programs that we don't like, but that we support it when that money is going to programs we support (or to things in our own districts). That opens us up to claims of hypocrisy. And that is the most effective kind of criticism: the kind that is right.”
Person, a Pennsylvania native who played football at the University of South Carolina, was hired by Vice President Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, in 2006 as a driver and personal assistant. Person stayed with the vice president’s staff as an adviser until 2014, when he returned to South Carolina. Biden is helping to raise money for Person’s campaign.
Person said protecting the military budget is a national security imperative.
“Giving the men and women in uniform all of the resources they need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow is the most important thing we could do right now,” Person said Friday.
He opposes Pentagon budget cuts out of concern for the local economy and the people who work on or near Shaw Air Force Base. The Air Force already has scaled back the number of fighter pilots and training hours, for example.
“It hits home right here in our district,” Person said.
Instead of spending cuts, Person advocates economic growth and tax reform as a recipe for tackling the federal debt.
“For certain people and companies, we should cut out some loopholes and make them pay their fair share,” Person said. “And not do it on the backs of our men and women in uniform.”