At the moment, there's little political momentum in Congress toward reversing the sequester cuts.
“The outlook for a grand bargain is no more likely today than it was when the super committee met and failed nearly two years ago. That increases the irrelevance of the 2014 defense budget request,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
President Obama’s budget doesn’t ignore sequestration — but it fixes it through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts that are politically unacceptable to Republicans.
The president’s sequestration solution does include cuts to the Pentagon, but they don’t kick in until the tail end of the 10-year budget.
Of course, the Obama administration budget isn’t the only one that ignores sequester — the House and Senate budgets that passed last month set defense spending at a similar level.
But by ignoring sequester in 2014, Congress and the White House risk a Groundhog Day scenario, where the budget process plays out the same way and the Pentagon has to scramble to implement sequester, said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“The way to turn it off is through some sort of grand bargain in Congress, and the party’s are basically still at same negotiating position,” Harrison said. “Unless something changes politically, we are headed for a repeat of last year, except the timeline is moved up a bit — it’s not a January deadline looming.”
In 2014, there is not a penalty sequester like 2013, so the Defense budget would have the flexibility to make targeted cuts. But if the budget goes over the budget caps in the Budget Control Act, then the decried across-the-board cut would once again take effect.
Defense officials defended the budget request released Wednesday, saying it is responsible to find a solution that averts sequester.
“I don’t think anybody is minimizing the reality of sequestration as law,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at a Pentagon budget briefing.
It’s also unlikely that Pentagon officials could have shifted gears so quickly after the sequester took effect in March, Hagel said. The Pentagon had prepared the 2014 budget without sequester in part because most in Washington — from lawmakers in Congress to President Obama — said the sequester would not actually take effect.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also said that he did not believe the Pentagon should have budgeted for the sequester.
Levin’s committee and the House Armed Services panel are also expected to set defense spending at pre-sequester levels in the 2014 Defense authorization bill.
“I wouldn’t assume sequestration because I think we ought to try to avoid it. So I can’t criticize others for not assuming it,” Levin told reporters Tuesday. “We made the mistake before of not avoiding it, and I don’t think we ought to repeat the mistake.”
Most lawmakers from both parties still think that sequester cuts are not wise for the Pentagon, as well as non-defense spending. But the two parties still remain deadlocked on taxes and mandatory spending, and a grand bargain deal to avert sequester remains elusive.
The damage to the Pentagon did little to prod Congress toward a deal before sequester began in March.
“Defense is a drive-by victim of whatever happens in the budget debate,” said Gordon Adams, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center.
The Pentagon is expected to look toward major changes in the 2015 budget, when a new strategic review ordered by Hagel will be complete, along with the Quadrennial Defense Review.
As a result, there were few changes made in the 2014 budget. No major weapons programs were terminated, and most proposals to cut benefits and infrastructure were included — and rejected by Congress — in 2013.
The Pentagon even underscored this in its own budget overview documents, which said: “Story: Not much change from 13 Request.”
“The president’s fiscal year 2014 defense budget request is a placebo, a placeholder with no effect,” wrote Travis Sharp, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
But some warned that the resulting uncertainty would continue to harm the military and industrial base, leaving Pentagon scrambling when it did have to adjust for the sequester cuts.
“Poor decisions like not sending an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and cutting tuition assistance for service members are, in part, the result of rosy and ultimately wrong political calculations regarding the 2013 continuing resolution and sequester impacts,” Eaglen said.