Sequestration: When the safety valve fails

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While much of the focus of the sequester debate has been on the national security impact, the domestic impact deserves some attention. The domestic cuts could affect airline safety as air traffic controllers, air marshals and airport screeners are reduced. Prepare for longer lines at Dulles and Reagan National airports. Customs, drug enforcement, park service and other personnel will be cut. And thousands of government workers will join the unemployed.

But it is on the national security side where there has been the most pressure to avoid sequester. President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the entire military establishment had already agreed to a new strategy and had taken close to $500 billion out of projected Pentagon growth over the next 10 years. Reducing the defense budget by another $500 billion, especially if done mindlessly across the board, would be reckless and irresponsible. Yet those whose intransigence caused the problem are now the most vocal in decrying the results of their policies. This hypocrisy has been particularly on display over the last few weeks as some elected officials have fear-mongered against the automatic budget cuts on the defense side that were explicitly designed as a safety valve to compel them to stop playing politics and take a more responsible, problem-solving approach.

That more responsible approach would include a balance of cuts in spending and increases in revenue. It would be driven by a commitment to preserve genuinely necessary Pentagon spending while eliminating wasteful, redundant and unnecessary programs — programs that put a greater emphasis on lobbyist’s priorities than on America’s national interest. As Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has noted, “We need to protect our nation, not the Pentagon’s sacred cows.”

Make no mistake, Congress can draft a comprehensive, practical budget that makes America stronger both economically and militarily. In fact, our economic power and competitiveness are inseparable from our overall strength as a nation. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has said: “It makes no sense at all for us to have an extraordinarily capable military instrument of power if we are economically disadvantaged around the world.” In other words, we need to make responsible budgetary choices aimed at re-shaping our military for our 21st century strategy.

Congress has every power to come up with a budget that would preserve national security priorities, but right now they are too busy pointing fingers to take responsibility for addressing a problem that they created. Instead of playing a blame game about the mindless cuts that sequestration could bring, members of Congress should advocate for a strategic, pragmatic budget that places the security of our country first and politics second.

The safety valve failed. The automatic sequester is driving this nation off a cliff. It is time for adult leadership and congressional responsibility and perhaps, just perhaps, patriotism over partisanship. 

Klass is a retired Air Force colonel and has served in the Executive Office of the President as a White House fellow. He is a member of the Board of the Council for a Livable World. Korb served as assistant secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1985, where he administered about seventy percent of the Defense budget. He is now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.