Sequester battle hits new furlough

The president warned about sequester last night in his State of the Union. The service chiefs are marching around Capitol Hill crying doom and gloom. The defense industry is once again decrying the impact of sequester on employment and the economy (well, their part of the economy). As we approach March 1, the cacophony on sequester is growing. And, after more than a month of being asked by the White House to keep silent, the domestic agencies, which are actually seriously affected, have begun to speak out.

Last week, the White House released a "fact sheet" about the impact of sequester on jobs, families, and the economy, which, rightly, made absolutely no mention of the impact on defense. The domestic impacts would be severe: For a time the FBI would lose the equivalent of 1,000 agents; the Justice Department would lose lawyers; the Food and Drug Administration would lose staff who approve new drugs and ensure food safety; the International Trade Administration would lose export promoters; the IRS would lose tax responders during tax season; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would pull inspectors for a time. You get the idea.

These consequences are the result of anticipated furloughs of federal employees. Asked if he could give a precise number of federal employees and contractors who would be affected, the controller of the Office of Management and Budget said he could not: "I just know it's high; it's in the hundreds of thousands of employees, but I don't have a specific estimate."

These are serious impacts and they hit domestic agencies particularly hard because non-defense agencies are personnel heavy. Non-defense agencies employ roughly 2 million civilians, and buy about 25 percent of what the entire federal government buys. The Department of Defense, on the other hand, employs only 800,000 civilians, and consumes the other three-fourths of total government buying. Yes, DOD has a lot of people, but the wages and benefits of the 1.5 million people in uniform are exempt from sequester. Nearly a third of the defense budget is tied up in contracts for research and production performed in the private sector. While sequester would reduce future funds for contracts, the automatic cuts will not affect dollars that are already obligated.

For DOD, this means sequester hits civilian personnel and services contractors, who often work on so-called Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts. (That means the agency buying the service has the capacity to ask the contractor to do work, but it is never clear when or for how much, making IDIQ contracts a likely target for sequester.) At the Pentagon, this will mean reduced funding for operations and maintenance.

That account includes the DOD "back office," which is both large and filled with duplicative efforts. Defense officials can do things like eliminating separate surgeons-general and administrative stovepipes for health programs before making dramatic flag-waving decisions like delaying the deployment of a second carrier to the Gulf. And the sequester rules make such a choice entirely possible; the building has known it for months.

For the domestic agencies, it is tougher sledding. While Social Security and Medicare are exempt from sequester -- so benefits will continue -- the staff providing programs and benefits will be spending an unpaid series of Fridays at home. The things Americans have become used to getting from their government -- services, for the most part -- are also likely to slow down.

Until last week, we only heard the complaints from DOD, the agency with the largest exemption and the greatest flexibility in managing sequester. As I suggested last week, the administration seemed to figure that the squealing from DOD will get Republican attention and end the sequester sideshow. Perhaps now they are broadening the focus to areas of more severe consequence, to help focus Congress on negotiating a budget solution.


National Security

The services forecast doom. Again

You can see it in the charts.

Ships won't sail, tanks won't be repaired, troops at the front won't have bullets. Summing it all up, America will become a second-rate power, the outgoing secretary of defense said at Georgetown last week.

On Tuesday, the service chiefs will scatter themselves all over the Hill to spread the gospel, telling the Senate and House Armed Services Committees how truly, truly awful it will be if they lose 10 percent of their budget this year.

It's overwhelming. Or, it was, until I started reading a paper delivered by Richard Kohn, professor emeritus from the University of North Carolina, former Air Force historian, and one of the most respected students of civil-military relations in the country.

Kohn makes a fundamental point: The military today is exceeding its mandate in publicly lobbying for its budgets and intruding into the debate over the U.S. role in global security. He argues that "this willingness -- indeed, in some cases eagerness -- to strive to shape public opinion and thereby affect decisions and policy outcomes is a dangerous development for the U.S. military and is extraordinarily corrosive of civilian control."

Kohn asks the tough question: "Is it proper for the four services, the regional commanders, or the Joint Chiefs every year to advocate to the public directly their needs for ships, airplanes, divisions, troops, and other resources, or their views on what percentage of the nation's economy should go to defense as opposed to other priorities?"

Put another way, in the policy universe, the military service chiefs are risking their credibility by such naked promotion of their budgets and service interests. Yes, and they've been doing so for about 15 years now, encouraged by a Congress fighting partisan warfare.

In fact, what stimulated me was a footnote in the article -- a footnote that sounded so strikingly familiar that today began to feel like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi would say. It was the headlines that grabbed me: "New Commandant Intends to Push for More Resources for Pentagon"; "Marine Commandant Calls for Defense Spending Increase"; "Outgoing 6th Fleet Commander Warns Fleet Size is Too Small"; "Admiral: Navy Pales to Past One"; "Senior Navy Officers: ‘We Need More Ships, Planes, Subs'"; "Budgets Need to Support Our Tasking"; "Help Keep This The Greatest Navy." They're all from 1999 or 2000.

Sound familiar? Listen to what the service chiefs say Tuesday and it will. There is never enough; the budget can never be cut; we are losing our edge; sequester will weaken our military power.

The secretary should have reined them in, not unleashed them. The test for the services is not how well they advocate, nor how thoroughly they exaggerate the consequences of choice-making, nor how public they become. The test for the next secretary is how truthful he will be and how firmly he sets the tone for the department and the service chiefs. And the test for Congress is whether it can set partisanship aside and stop pulling the service chiefs into the fray as battering rams to flail away at the other side.

One can always hope.

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