How like the services...

In the absence of the Congress -- now in recess -- the Army, Navy, and Air Force have continued to litter the universe with more confetti about sequester. For those of you familiar with Carl Builder's masterful study of military service culture, these recently released documents are a fascinating look at the different cultures of the three largest military services.

The Army document is classic Army. Fifty-five pages long, it marches a division, step-by-step, through the purported impact of sequester on every state in the Union. It is an overwhelming show of force, as recommended years ago by Colin Powell. And it says these terrible things will happen: "every base will be affected," and the Army "is taking action."

The Navy document is more succinct -- only 11 pages. And it is more honest. While it describes impacts, it also calls them "representative in nature" and "potential." It does not say these things are being implemented and it more carefully lays out the assumptions that lead to the impact. The tone is cautious and independent, like the Navy.

And the Air Force document is classic Air Force: one page, blunt, and in your face. A simple map of the United States, with data, state-by-state, of civilian furlough numbers, lost pay, and facility projects cancelled. No text, just the facts, ma'am. Like a quick air strike on a communications node -- accurate kill, as needed.

The trouble is, of course, that sequester has not happened. The secretary has not made choices; priorities have not been allocated. But the services have been let out to make the worst case they can. Only the Navy is straightforward in saying these are "potential" impacts, and that is true not only because sequester has not happened, but because the decisions and prioritizations have not been made.

Meanwhile, one wonders why these things are the outcome, and not others, in case of sequester. For example, Tom Vanden Brook in yesterday's USA Today highlights serious doubts about the Army's $250 million program to put otherwise inadequately employed social scientists out in the battlefield to assess the "human terrain." The program is not clearly value-added, commanders think, and internal Army documents apparently reveal incidents of sexual harassment, racism, and possible fraud.

The program is doubtless funded in the same operational accounts where cuts would purportedly hit the same civil servants the Army sequester briefing warns about. In the priority-setting process, it is a perfect candidate for elimination, and all the services have the flexibility, under sequester, to make such a choice. I would readily trade a civil servant's furlough for getting rid of social scientists used in this way.

The underlying problem is that the service briefings are not plans, they betray no underlying decision-making or prioritization. They are political documents, intended to instill fear and to bring politicians to the table.

And they are not working; for all the cacophony, almost everybody in Washington thinks we will blow through National Sequester Day (March 1), issue furlough notices (DOD's go out today, in advance of sequester), and lay out a menu of cut-backs.

Then the Congress will spend March focusing on the real issue: FY 2013 spending levels and what happens by March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires. Sequester madness will step aside, and the real budget battle will get under way.

If the services are lucky, they will get funding pretty much like the past fiscal year. And Congress may provide them with more flexibility to allocate those funds than the sequester would. Then the services would have to do the real management job, instead of the Washington Monument closings they are sending out now.

U.S. Air Force

National Security

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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