The U.S. Armed Services are preparing to absorb billions of dollars in budget cuts over the next decade, over and above sweeping cuts that have already taken effect, and a large number of defense reforms currently under way. They are nevertheless holding out hope that they might be able to avoid the worst–the additional $492 billion in sequestration cuts scheduled to take effect in 2013 as a consequence of the so-called Supercommittee’s failure to reach a deficit deal in Congress last month.
Their hopes appear to be increasingly futile. The Obama Administration is getting ever tougher on the Department of Defense (DoD), closing loopholes and vowing to veto any measure that would block or reverse sequester. It is sticking to its guns, despite dire warnings from DoD officials and the senior military leaders from each service that sequestration would have “severe and irreversible” effects on America’s military strength. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the only way around the cuts may be a transfer of power in the White House in 2012.
Why are military leaders, civilian defense officials, and many independent analysts describing sequester as a doomsday scenario? Here is some recent history.
In September of this year, the Department of Defense completed the fifth round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiatives, having closed more than 350 bases and disbanded or “streamlined” thousands of units over the past several years. Additionally, over the past two years, defense cuts made by the Obama Administration have caused further upheaval and left 50 major weapons programs on the chopping block.
While adjusting to those program cancellations, the services are currently struggling to implement $178 billion in “efficiency savings” over the coming five years–the outcome of yet another cost-cutting effort launched by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year. And more recently, the debt ceiling agreement reached by Congress last summer–the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011–has removed an additional $13 billion from the FY12 defense budget and mandates $465 billion in cuts over the coming decade (although Office of Management and Budget data puts the cuts at $488 billion, or about an 8.5% overall budget decrease).
Now, as if that weren’t enough to chew on, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’s failure to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction measures has set the stage for further pain. Under the sequestration mechanisms agreed to by Congress, half of the $1.2 trillion in budget cuts will have to come from “discretionary appropriations in budget function 050.” At least $492 billion of those cuts will hit the Department of Defense, and the remainder will affect nuclear weapons programs managed by the Department of Energy.
DoD is currently completing an extensive strategic and budgetary review to guide future budget cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will begin talking about the review publicly next month but, according to Bloomberg Government, the Pentagon has already given President Obama a draft of the review, and that document only details the BCA-mandated cuts, not the additional $500 billion or so in sequestration cuts. Although the nation’s highest-ranking military officials recently convened at the Pentagon to confer on the impending sequestration trigger, Secretary Panetta has not yet ordered the services to make formal plans for dealing with it, nor to incorporate the cuts into their five-year budget projections.
Before they commit on paper to slashing future budgets radically and executing their nightmare scenario, Pentagon officials appear to be hoping for the intercession of friendly lawmakers. Indeed, several efforts to protect defense spending are beginning to take shape. According to Reuters, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon is vowing to fight the cuts, and Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are working on legislative measures to void sequester, despite the President’s veto threats. According to Politico, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor is floating a deal in which Republicans would give the President his payroll tax cut extension in exchange for defense cut modifications.
Neither approach, however, is particularly promising. Although efforts to alter the composition of sequester cuts may succeed in the House, they are highly unlikely to secure a veto-proof majority in the Senate. And Rep. Cantor’s deal seems equally improbable–at least to this casual observer. The President appears to be getting far too much mileage out of attacking Republicans, whom he accuses of fighting “tooth and nail to protect high-end tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and yet barely lift[ing] a finger to prevent taxes going up for 160 million Americans who really need help,” to play the old gentlemen’s game of good-faith negotiation and dealmaking.
Behind the scenes, policymakers have tried–with little success–to exploit other loopholes. According to a report by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, the House version of the FY12 National Defense Authorization Act included 115 earmarks (75 added by Democrats and 40 by Republicans) amounting to $834 million in federal spending. Rep. McKeon disputes the claim, arguing that Sen. McCaskill labeled any change from the President’s budget request as an earmark when, in fact, the House has a role to play in offering such spending amendments. Nevertheless, according to McKeon’s office, the entire section of the bill containing those amendments has since been stripped from the bill.
Other lawmakers have attempted to use the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, a separate war funding bill which is exempt from sequestration, as a way to outmaneuver the new budget caps. But the recent OMB document shows that the White House is placing new limits on war spending, and forcing the Pentagon to start funding ever more activities through its shrinking base budget.
The Obama Administration has been content to support dramatic spending growth in numerous departments and push a stimulus bill, health care bill, and omnibus spending bill loaded with many thousands of earmarks. But it has, since its earliest days, been uncharacteristically tough on waste in defense, and defense only, reserving many of its veto threats for defense spending measures, from the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine to sequester cut modifications.
America’s defense establishment and the military services have a long, proud tradition of being strictly apolitical and nonpartisan. But as the White House presses forward with doomsday cuts and squelches every alternative proposal, defense leaders are coming up against a hard reality: their last best hope, their only effective protectors, may be outside the halls of Congress: the Republican presidential hopefuls who have lashed out against the president’s defense cuts, and who promise to change course, should they win in 2012.
The author writes in her personal capacity and not as a representative of the armed forces.