Automatic spending cuts comprise one part of the so-called fiscal cliff. If politicians can't agree on a deal to cut the federal deficit, the Defense Department faces half-a-trillion dollars worth of cuts across the board. The Pentagon budget brings to mind expensive weapons programs -- planes and tanks -- but the federal government also spends billions on education and training. And some of those programs could take a hit.
Zach Zimmerman was only a few weeks into his freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan when he decided he wasn't ready for college.
"I really felt a calling to join. So, I think really, before anyone knew I had left school, I was in boot camp," says Zimmerman.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps and 2007, he went to Iraq. Two years later, he was in Afghanistan. Today, he's at Georgetown, a junior studying in the business school. And he's here thanks to the GI Bill.
"I think it makes things so much easier," he says.
Like roughly a million vets, Zimmerman gets $1,000 a year for books and supplies, and a housing allowance.
"If you go to a state college or a community college, or any sort of public university, you get... It's 100 percent free. You're not going to pay tuition," says Zimmerman.
Since he goes to a private school, Zimmerman gets about $18,000 a year from the government, and Georgetown kicks in another $5,000. Todd Harrison, a fellow of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, says that if the U.S. economy goes over the fiscal cliff, that would not affect the GI Bill. The program is overseen by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it's what's known as a mandatory part of the federal budget.
"For people who aren't budget geeks, that's where things like Social Security and Medicare are funded. Congress does not have to come back each year and continue to approve the program. It just automatically continues on autopilot unless Congress wants to step in and change it," says Harrison.
The GI Bill is safe. And so are salaries for active duty military personnel. By law, automatic spending cuts couldn't affect combat operations. But it could affect what are called "peacetime operations," like that Marine Corps boot camp Zach Zimmerman participated in.
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration now at the Center for American Progress, says there is a lot of education and training that goes on for the force exclusive of the GI Bill.
"You take young men and young women into the service, or you put them into boot camp, for example, or basic training for the Army. And then, of course, you have your military academies, which train officers," he says.
There are the war colleges. There is the Naval Postgraduate School. In its budget request for fiscal year 2013, the Pentagon has asked for $125 billion to pay for "readiness and training." Harrison says that would take a hit.
"High-priority programs, low-priority programs -- they all get cut by the same percentage, 10 percent," says Harrison.
The Army could be faced with a choice: reduce how many hours they train soldiers in tanks or reduce how many soldiers get tank training. The Air Force could cut back on pilots' flying hours or they could cut back on how many pilots are flying.
The White House maintains automatic cuts would not affect combat readiness. But the truth is, we don't know how the Pentagon would make those cuts. Harrison says the Defense Department will act like it's business as usual -- until it isn't.
Just four weeks are left until we head over the fiscal cliff and a deal hasn't been reached yet, but can Washington get it done? Reporter David Gura says people are optimistic.
"Lawmakers are keeping pretty busy. They're meeting with CEOs, they're meeting with small business owners, they're meeting with other lawmakers and people from the White House. So they're talking about this stuff a lot and that engenders some confidence, some optimism that they might be able to do something," says Gura. "In the last week or so I'd say we've seen politicians indicate they're at least open to making a deal than they were on the campaign trail."
But time is ticking. Congress only has a few more days scheduled to be in session, which is a big motivator that's pushing lawmakers to do something. But Gura says politics, pride, and job worry all play into why there isn't a deal.
"Americans have every right to be upset with how glacially slow Congress has acted over these last couple of years really," says Gura. "We hit this fiscal cliff towards the end of December and the new Congress arrives in Washington in early January. So in theory [lawmakers] could work up until then, I think the hope is that they can find some kind of agreement before the holiday break."