No end in sight to squawking over impending defense sequestration

The defense budget politicians are going ga-ga over a monster they helped to create: the “sequester” of about $500 billion out of the defense budget over the next nine years — the broadly undesired effect of the Budget Control Act and the  failed supercommittee of 2011. The most palpably political secretary of Defense in decades, Leon Panetta, says it will spell out “doomsday” but has instructed his staff to do nothing about it — at least, visibly. The capital’s self-anointed Pentagon money huckster, Congressman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, provides new hyperbole every few days, and senators from both parties busy themselves, as recently as last week, demanding reports whose only real effect will be to help them write more speeches.

All this “Brownian Motion” is the embodiment of the dysfunction in Washington. It’s not that they can’t do anything about something they all profess to be horrible — it’s that they don’t want to. 

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That the Department of Defense must be defended from sequester is one of the few unifying beliefs in Washington, even if it is quite poorly informed. Maneuvering for the elections is more important to the actors in an elections spectacle. The Republicans want to label Democrats as “anti-defense,” idly standing by as the defense budget is cut, and the Democrats paint the Republicans as wantonly obstructionist. Both sides think they’ll leverage more votes in November by doing so, and are avidly sticking to their game plan.

Their opposing motivations resulted in typically dysfunctional legislation last week: an amendment to tell them something they already think they know, demanding a report from the executive branch that says the sequester means too many cuts too deep, administered in a mindless, automatic fashion. The only real purpose to be served is providing fodder for newly elevated bombast. Yet, the authors of the amendment preen themselves, play-acting that they secured a meaningful step forward.

But, the lawmakers don’t want that report from the executive branch. It would mean an end to the endless games Washington has been playing with the numbers.

For example, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has repeatedly testified that the sequester would cause the national defense budget function to lose $492 billion over nine years, but as late as last week, politicians, and even journalists, were saying the cuts would be $600 billion. 

The games hardly end there. CBO has further explained that sequester would impose a $55 billion reduction in the 2013 defense budget; others say it would be $60 billion; still others say more. It depends on what “baseline” you work from: CBO’s; the Obama defense budget request for 2013, or projections for 2013, such as what House Republicans are seeking. Carefully selected baselines are useful things. 

Think tanks, budget analysts and reporters are having a field day with the numbers expressed as percentages. Two different think tanks separately reported 15 percent or 7.5 percent reductions in the defense budget in 2013 from sequester. CBO estimates it at 10 percent; the Congressional Research Service says 11.5 percent, and Bloomberg Government says 13 percent. They all — well, most — make a plausible argument; some seek to justify words like “indefensible,” “catastrophic,” or — of course —“doomsday.”

One of the more intriguing things about sequester is a rumored subterranean debate about whether or not the spending cuts must occur as a mindlessly automatic, across-the-board cutting operation in every separate “program, project and activity” in the defense budget, as most believe and expect. There have been hints, off-hand remarks and rumors that the White House’s agent, the Office of Management and Budget, has something different in store. OMB might even attempt to make it rational. 

But that would imply additional cuts in the defense budget are both feasible and appropriate. To propose that before the elections would be for the Democrats 

to jump into the Republicans’ “anti-defense” trap. That’s not going to happen.

As a result, the noise will continue.


Wheeler runs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which has recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Wheeler is also the editor of the anthology, “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.”