Is It Worth Breaking Sequester to Save Defense?

One of the main arguments that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is using in favor of the budget deal struck with Sen. Patti Murray (D-WA) is that the next wave of sequester cuts under the Budget Control Act would hurt the military significantly. In fact, the entire Budget Control Act of 2011 hurts the military disproportionately, since it applies 50% of the cuts to defense, which is only 19% of the budget. But is that a reason to reduce the cuts?

Here Congress must weigh another consideration: the national debt is "the most significant threat to our national security," said then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in August 2010. Therefore, while present-day cuts would hurt the military in the short to medium term, but a failure to make overall spending cuts and deficit reductions would endanger national security in the medium to long term. 

The Ryan-Murray budget deal raises overall spending today with promises of future reductions, through cuts to mandatory spending. That is a dubious proposition, at best. As with the Budget Control Act, now so readily thrown aside, there is no reason to believe that future Congresses will be bound by changes made by this one. Nor is there a guarantee that Democrats will not pass side bills on spending such as unemployment extensions.

The Budget Control Act does not strike the right balance. But it is the only way to achieve even modest spending cuts, for one simple reason: by sheer accident and miscalculation, the sequester was proposed by President Barack Obama. That means it is a law that the Democrats cannot easily undo. If Republicans are to change the sequester at all, they should change its composition, not the total amount, making other trade-offs if necessary.

The real, underlying problem is Congress's failure to prioritize defense spending above all other discretionary budget items. Defense is the primary public good, the first priority of any government. Placing it on a par with student loans and green-energy tax credits is a political perversion. That does not mean it should take over the whole budget, or that there is no waste in defense spending. But it should be restored to its place of primacy.

The Ryan-Murray deal does not do that. It does the opposite: it allows Democrats to threaten national security unless the sequester is lifted. Worse, it reinforces the idea that the moral burden of national security falls on the Republican Party alone. That is not a way to protect the military, but rather a recipe for future defense spending cuts as Democrats revive their class warfare arguments, setting up the Pentagon as a convenient political foil.

The Wall Street Journal crowed on the front page: "Deal Brings Stability to U.S. Budget." Yet, in fact, the deal does precisely the opposite. The sequester was the only politically stable part of the budget, a compromise that was made as a matter of necessity, and which Republicans mustered the political will to defend earlier this year. With the sequester caps removed, Democrats can merely threaten more shutdowns to increase future spending.

If the national debt crisis is as severe a threat to national security as Adm. Mullen suggested--and there seem to be many Americans who agree--then there really are only two viable options: 1. keep the sequester in place, and learn to manage with less; 2. change the makeup of the sequester, giving Democrats something in return (other than new taxes). Otherwise the sequester caps that remain will be a Maginot Line: reassuring, but futile.


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