The gentleman from Nevada yields…to the Pentagon

Everyone is talking about the proposal Senate Democrats are putting forward to avert a budget sequester on March 1. No text has been released yet, but this fact sheet makes it clear that this allegedly bold proposal is simply a duck. It avoids the key issues in sequestration -- especially the need for discipline in the defense budget.

Apparently, the bill would change both revenue and spending plans to provide the $110 billion in budget savings the original sequester would impose this fiscal year were it to go into effect. Half of that amount would come from changes to the tax code -- notably from adopting the so-called Buffett Rule, which would tax income in excess of $1 million at a rate of at least 30 percent.

The other half of the savings -- $54 billion -- would come from equal cuts to defense and non-defense agencies. That should mean $27 billion in defense savings this year. That would be a significant reduction, though less than the $42.5 billion cut the sequester would compel.

But, there is a dirty little secret in the bill: Neither the $27 billion in defense savings nor the $27 billion in non-defense savings would happen this fiscal year. Instead, the bill sneaks those reductions into future budgets, just delaying the pain. The defense budget would not be cut at all in 2013.

If you don't believe me, read the language in the fact sheet (I italicized the key parts):

The American Family Economic Protection Act fully protects the Defense Department, like other Federal agencies, from sequestration until January 2, 2014. Throughout 2013, no sequester would be implemented, and the existing limits on security-related spending would continue to apply.

Twenty-five percent of the overall costs of suspending sequestration would be offset by very modest reductions in the overall level of defense spending in the future. These reductions would total $27.5 billion, or 0.5 percent of defense spending between Fiscal Years 2013 and 2021. The reductions would not begin until Fiscal Year 2015, when the war in Afghanistan is expected to end.

The cuts would be spread out in relatively modest increments over 7 years, through Fiscal Year 2021, and would allow defense spending to increase by at least two percent in each of those years, even after the reduction. The reduction would be about $3 billion in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016, and then would rise slowly to a high of about $5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021. 

This is a pure, unadulterated duck on disciplining defense this year -- a larger version of what Congress did last month, when it ostensibly cut defense $12 billion in FY 2013 as it deferred sequestration to March 1. In truth, it postponed $8 billion of that reduction into FY 2014. (And why would defense go up later on, according to the fact sheet? Because we have not yet cut defense. The Panetta projected budgets continue to grow; his "cuts" were from even higher projected growth.)

There is no running away from the reality that disciplining spending means actually, well, disciplining spending. And the Defense Department faces this kind of discipline this year. The Democratic proposal is going nowhere; it will not even pass the Senate. But it doesn't confront the budgetary reality; it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck.

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National Security

Going for the blunderbuss

The big weapons have moved in. On February 13, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went over the top of the trench, grabbed the biggest artillery piece he could find and charged the enemy, saying a sequester of the defense budget on March 1 would "upend our defense strategy," leave the U.S. open to "coercion," and force us to "break our commitments" to the troops, the defense industry, and our friends and allies.

What is this, a Saturday Night Live sketch? No, just another piece in the confetti-laden ticker tape parade the service chiefs and the chairman are leading around the friendly confines of the Armed Services Committees to beat back a sequester on defense.

He may convince the already-convinced members of the committee, but the almost comic rhetoric should not fool anyone else.

Let me say it again: Sequester would pose serious management challenges to the Department of Defense, no doubt about it. But the U.S. military is a dominant force, with few challengers. It is the only force capable of global sailing, flying, and deployment. The only one with global logistics, communications, intelligence, transportation, and infrastructure. It costs five times the that of the Chinese military, and accounts for 40 percent of the spending on all world militaries combined. It spends more money today than it ever has, in constant dollars.

They are an awesome bunch, and everyone around the world knows it. There is no way a sequester would leave this force or the country open to coercion.

Losing 10 percent of the planned resources in one year will change none of that. Properly managed, even sequester would be survivable, leaving a dominant military capability. Nobody has to revisit strategy -- the pivot to the Pacific would happen anyway, and, frankly, is more a matter of moving things around than adding new military kit to the region. We have left and are leaving the two big combat operations, substantially increasing planning flexibility -- every other deployment (Sahel, Horn of Africa, Philippines) involves a tiny fraction of the overall force.

And as for that "commitment" observation, pay and benefits for the troops are untouched by sequester, leaving the commitments intact. And the industry figured out two years ago that the defense budget was going down. They have been consolidating capacity, shrinking the workforce, bringing subcontracted business in house, selling assets for two years. Only this year are these long-term, sensible decisions being blamed on sequester; they were already happening and will continue to happen, with or without sequester.

And our friends and allies? In Europe they have already figured out that defense requirements need to be balanced off against broader fiscal and social needs, as we are only now doing today. And in Asia, a number of allies are starting to do exactly what we have been asking them to do for decades: Assume more responsibility for their own security. The United States will still be around, nonetheless.

But we must be in another act of the budget battle. The military has been pushed into the point of the spear as part of the pressure to get to a deal, so hyperbole commands the stage. Personally, I can't wait for the show to end.

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