Volume XVIII No. 8: February 22, 2013
Congress and the President are trying to blame each other for looming across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Dueling press releases claim it’s well nigh to a budget apocalypse and that everything from air travel to military readiness will be ruined. Our response to Congress and the President: The chickens have come home to roost. You can stop sequestration, but that requires you to do your job.
Some major—err, General—Chicken Littles are singing about sequestration in the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff came to Capitol Hill last week with tales of woe, claiming the cuts will hollow out the force, reduce training, and delay deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman. We are reminded that when the carrier’s namesake President was told “Give ‘em hell, Harry.” He replied “I don’t give them hell, I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
Well, the truth is that the Pentagon has flexibility in how to implement sequestration, and the Pentagon brass are picking the scariest places to cut as a form of brinksmanship. Sequestration is a bad tool and no way to run a government. But it’s not a straightjacket, especially in defense. Yes, every account must meet a spending reduction target, but the law does not say every single program under that account must be cut equally.
Putting the cuts in historical perspective is even more eye-opening. While the Joint Chiefs claim they’re cutting to the bone, sequestration will actually take defense spending to the same level we saw in 2007, six years into a post-9-11 ramp up in spending (and that doesn’t include war spending). Future overseas operations--or any national defense emergency that might pop up in the future-aren’t subject to sequestration. In fact, several weapons systems will end up with more money than they got last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
This leads us to one of the real drivers of sequestration: Many in Washington aren’t really concerned that the cuts are too close to the bone, they’re concerned the cuts are too close to home. Lawmakers could give agencies discretion to prioritize the cuts if they wanted to, but that would mean a favorite project or program from their district might get cut even more.
Let’s not forget, the sequester didn’t fall out of the sky. Congress chose this path, first by putting the sequester into the deficit reduction package and then by choosing not to meet the $1.5 trillion deficit reduction target. Washington made its bed and now it doesn’t want to lie in it.
Congress and the President can allow even more discretion while still keeping the cuts. They could amend the sequester to allow more transfer authority within agencies, or allow agencies to apply lower-percentage account reductions as long as the overall spending reduction number is met. They could also add criteria such as funding multi-year programs over one-offs, shifting cuts from operations (payroll) accounts over to capital (new buildings and construction), or directing agencies to prioritize programs with the most return on investment.
There’s another way to avoid the sequester—reduce the deficit. Washington only needs to find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years. It’s doable. There are plenty of paths Congress can take—we offered one, and there are many others out there as well. But that requires fiscal hawks instead of budgetary chickens.Let us know what you think.
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