Much of the attention in defense circles in recent weeks has been focused, naturally enough, on the release of a new defense budget that contains the first tranche of cuts as part of the $487 billion in savings mandated by Congress last summer under the Budget Control Act. But it is also important to remember that sequestration is still barreling down the track, and, if left unstopped, will produce a catastrophic collision that will leave the armed forces, already reeling, in a seriously weakened state.
Sequestration, recall, was the process whereby a special congressional committee was supposed to find $1.2 trillion in budget cuts on pain of seeing half that amount automatically deducted from the defense budget and the other half from domestic programs. The threat did not work, and the special committee finished its work before Thanksgiving without having reached any agreement. That means that half of those cuts–roughly $600 billion–will fall on the defense budget starting on January 1, 2013, even though defense spending as a whole only accounts for just 20 percent of the entire federal budget. There is widespread bi-partisan agreement that the consequences of sequestration would be catastrophic; everyone from Leon Panetta to Gen. Martin Dempsey have said so.
Yet, there has been no progress on derailing sequestration, and President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that exempts defense from cuts without finding offsetting savings.
It’s only February, but there is not much time for Congress to act; the closer we get to Jan. 1, the more the Pentagon will have to start suspending contracts and taking other actions in anticipation of a huge falloff in funding.
Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced legislation to push back the sequestration for a year and pay for the offsetting savings (around $60 billion) through attrition of the federal workforce. Laying off federal civilian workers may not be palatable to members of Congress—although apparently it’s okay to lay off 110,000 Army and Marine veterans as part of the current round of cutbacks.
But there is no biblical commandment that says Congress must find savings to offset the cost of saving the Defense Department from disaster. Congress could simply pass a bill suspending defense cuts pending action next year to find a more rational way to cut the defense budget. It is hard to believe the bond markets will be spooked by such a move because they know that cutting the Defense Department does little to address our serious debt crisis.
It is imperative that Congress act now. Otherwise our armed forces will be devastated at a time when they are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan, combating terrorism and piracy, deterring Iran, North Korea and China, and performing myriad other vital missions.