Sequestration becomes 2016 buzzword

Sequestration becomes 2016 buzzword
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Sequestration is becoming a buzzword on the campaign trail for Republican presidential candidates.

The term, which refers to spending limits on the federal government, has long been the source of contentious debate in Congress.

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But now the question of whether sequestration should be lifted, and how, is putting the GOP’s presidential contenders on the spot.

From Colorado to the key early-voting state of New Hampshire, candidates are being pressed to say what they would do about the deep cuts poised to hit government spending in the years ahead.

“Will you work to end sequestration as it affects the VA and military?” a Vietnam war veteran asked former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) during a town hall in Englewood, Colo. last month.

“I do believe that we ought to end sequestration for the military,” Bush replied, drawing applause from the crowd.

Many of the GOP candidates, including Bush, argue that the spending cuts have weakened the military and hurt America’s ability to combat threats around the globe.

But unlike Democrats, they are not calling for lifting sequestration for domestic programs as well.

The spending limits are a problem the next president will likely face, since the spending caps will remain in place through 2021 unless the law is changed.

Just days before Bush’s comments, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that the “sequester doesn’t matter to me.”

Kasich later clarified that remark several times and said at a national security forum in Southfield, Mich., last week that Congress must “get rid” of sequestration for defense.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.) pounced on Kasich’s initial comment, saying that the Ohio governor, who previously served as chairman of the House Budget Committee in Congress, is “not ready” to be president.

“If the next president doesn’t understand that the cuts are killing us, in terms of defending ourselves, you’re not ready to be commander-in-chief. ... This is a cocktail for disaster,” Graham reportedly said in a foreign policy speech in South Carolina.

Some of the other GOP candidates, including Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.) and Chris Christie (N.J.), support reversing sequestration for the Pentagon and increasing defense spending.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP lawmakers preparing to vote on bill allowing migrant children to be detained longer than 20 days: report Wasserman Schultz: Infants separated from their parents are in Florida immigrant shelters Ex-White House ethics chief: Sarah Sanders tweet violates ethics laws MORE’s campaign did not return a request for comment when asked where the GOP frontrunner stands on the issue. 

Back in 2013, just before the automatic spending cuts took effect, Trump said on Fox News that the cuts didn’t go far enough.

“I think that the cuts are not going to be steep, as you see. I think you're going to have to do a lot more cutting,” Trump said. “If you're going to balance budgets, you're going to be doing a lot more cutting, and there's no question about it.”

Harry Stein, director of fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress, said the talk of increasing spending is an awkward balancing act for many of the candidates.

“It does kind of lead to uncomfortable questions that they might not want to answer,” he said. “I think for a lot of them, they probably just haven’t decided, really, what they think.”

On the one hand, the Republican candidates want to show voters that they support a strong military. On the other, they want to push fiscal responsibility and the adoption of a balanced budget that reduces the debt.

Stan Collender, executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP, said the emerging debate is quite a contrast from the 2010 midterm elections, when many GOP candidates campaigned on a skyrocketing debt and deficits under Obama.

“No one wants to talk about the deficit because they’d have to acknowledge that it’s fallen by $1 trillion,” since 2009, he said.

Among the GOP contenders that have weighed in on sequestration, few have delved into the non-defense side of the budget.

When the veteran asked Bush his question about reversing the cuts for the VA and the military, Bush did not directly answer the part about the Department of Veterans Affairs, which falls under the domestic side of the budget.

“There’s a lot of national security functions that fall within the non-defense cap,” said Stein, who named the VA, the State Department and embassy security, as well as border control, as examples. “And to focus only on the defense cap really ignores important dimensions of national security.”

In March, before Bush launched his presidential run, he talked about the need to invest long-term in science research and infrastructure projects.

Asked where Bush stands on reversing sequestration for domestic programs, his campaign stressed his support for increased funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Gov. Bush thinks NIH funding should be expanded, and he is committed to reallocating money to medical research. However, most government spending is for the ‘here and now.’ Thus, important research and development gets crowded out by short-term spending which does not have the same productive benefits,” Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger told The Hill.

Steve Bell, senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, argued the candidates making a “profound error” by not talking about easing sequestration for domestic programs.

“We are eating our own seed corn,” he said. “We are starving the investment side of the budget.”

And while many of the GOP candidates say they back reversing sequestration for the military, they aren’t yet drilling down to a specific proposal.

“Despite all the talk, there is not a single person willing to walk the walk,” Bell said.