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The Folly of Sequestration and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson Higgins

On May 25, 1942, the waters off Norfolk, Virginia played host to a dramatic competition between military landing boats designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins and those used by the Navy. Army Major Howard Quinn, after observing the contest, wrote to his commanding officer that “there was no comparison”–the Higgins boat was the better craft. Quinn was on hand to watch the competition along with a member of the Truman Committee, led by then-Senator Harry S. Truman to investigate waste in the U.S. military’s war production. The contest had come at the behest of Truman, whom Higgins had convinced of the superiority of his boat.

The switch was made; the boats were mass-produced, and were integral to the success of the landing at Normandy. Had the military not had the Higgins boats, Dwight Eisenhower later said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And it wasn’t just the boats. As William Lee Miller writes in his book about the intersection of the lives of Truman and Eisenhower, Truman claimed to have saved $15 billion with his committee’s recommendations, by tackling “the prodigious waste in constructing camps, the shortage of essential commodities like rubber, magnesium, and aluminum; the protection of the consumer economy and the expansion of the labor pool. The committee also exposed corruption in war production.”

The reason the committee was considered such a success is because it enabled the military to cut wasteful spending while improving military readiness, equipment, and combat capability. Six decades later, then-Senator Hillary Clinton sought to take advantage of the negative reporting and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by invoking Truman’s name in a Wall Street Journal column full of righteous anger at perceived corruption and incompetence in war management during the Bush administration. The following year she was serving as the public face of the foreign policy of an Obama White House proposing to make cuts to the military decried by his own secretary of defense and whose devastating effect on military readiness has already begun to encroach on the line separating theory from reality.

“Of course, we need far more than a Truman Committee,” Clinton declared back in 2008. “We need the Truman spirit in the White House, where the buck finally stops.” Clinton is strangely silent on her former boss’s proposal to slash the military unless he gets more tax increases (the president’s supporters in the media and blogosphere like to refer to this tactic as “hostage taking”–when Republicans do it). But perhaps she should speak up, unless back in 2008 she was merely playing partisan politics with the armed forces and grandstanding from her Senate perch instead of expressing genuine concern about the American military.

These cuts to the military are part of sequestration, intended to make a dent in deficit spending. Will risking “hollowing out” the military at least get our budget issues under control? No, it won’t. As Philip Klein writes over at the Washington Examiner, the Congressional Budget Office’s newest 10-year spending forecast expects federal annual tax receipts to increase by 65 percent, revenue as a share of the overall economy to increase, spending on social security to go up by 67 percent, spending on federal health programs to balloon by 94 percent, and defense spending to increase 20 percent over that time period, bringing overall defense spending as a share of the federal budget below the historical average. Klein concludes:

These numbers, taken together, make it abundantly clear that the only reason for additional tax hikes at this point would be to chase skyrocketing spending on entitlements. Paying for this spending wouldn’t be a matter of asking the very rich to pay a little more — it would necessitate large tax hikes on the middle class that far exceed historical levels.

Sequestration is not about cutting “waste, fraud and abuse” or improving the efficiency of the U.S. military. It is about raiding a piggy bank to pay (unsuccessfully) for an ever-expanding welfare state, to which the president’s health-care reform legislation will only add as costs continue to rise, premiums increase, Medicaid rolls are expanded, and insurance consumers are shoved off of employer health plans and into government-subsidized exchanges. The result will be a nation even more deeply in debt but now also, thanks to the president’s bright idea, far less able to defend itself from threats and less able to do its part on behalf of global stability and security.


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