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Wages of fear 2: hyperbole or prudence?

For more than a year, certain members of the U.S. Congress -- Rep. Buck McKeon, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte -- aided and abetted by the Aerospace Industries Association, have been beating the drum of fear about the impact of a sequester on our nation's defense. They have all been wrong for more than a year and, for the most part, they have been talking in an echo chamber. Only other "defenders of defense" are listening.

The rest of the country seems to understand that with defense spending at an historic high and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ending, it is inevitable that the defense budget will come down and will do so with little impact on the global dominance of the American military.

This has not stopped the "defenders." Senator Graham went over the top again on Fox News Sunday.   According to The Hill, he claimed that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told him on Saturday night that a sequester "will be shooting the Defense Department in the head and we'll have to send out 800,000 layoff notices the beginning of the year."

Panetta probably did not say this. But Graham chose to take appropriate prudence at the Pentagon and spin it into hyperbole as part of the last-minute effort to keep the defense budget away from the fiscal and spending cliff.

Graham is dead wrong. Military personnel are exempt from a sequester, so no uniforms will be affected by these budget cuts. Graham has already been wrong for a year in asserting that 1 million industry jobs will be lost -- contractors are working on contracts that have already been funded, which by law are untouched by the sequester.

I have been saying for some time that the rules of the sequester make it likely that some civilian Pentagon employees could be furloughed for a short time to save resources in DoD's Operations and Maintenance accounts. What Panetta probably said was that if the sequester happens, he will notify all the civilian personnel at the Pentagon that some of them could be subject to furlough, as the department figures out how to work with 10 percent fewer resources than originally requested.

That is a prudent move. If spending cuts happen on Wednesday and are not fixed by the Congress over the next couple of months, there are likely to be furloughs. Estimates differ, but furloughs could affect as many as 100,000 civilian employees, or one eighth of the Pentagon's civilian staff. Not a pretty way to manage, but, with the Pentagon employing more than a third of all the civil servants in the government, inevitable and, above all, manageable.

Graham's last-minute thump on the drum of fear is just another example of the hyperbole with which he and his group have tried to keep defense out of the effort to rein in spending and raise revenues. Maybe he imagines that fear is more effective than fact at this late stage in the negotiations.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

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