Sequestration: a big word–and a bigger problem that demands action now

Cpl. Reece Lodder, U.S. Marine Corps/DoD

U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. David Rooks, an operations advisor with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment Embedded Training Team (ETT), determines target placement at the Shamshad target range in Afghanistan on Feb. 21, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Pushing off the #sequestration issue until November will make the problem bigger and costlier to fix

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  • Making the US military the bill-payer for America’s spending addiction was easy politics last summer, but it's not a solution

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  • If #Congress is really willing to preside over the death of America’s unique role in the world, it should be upfront

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There is not much policymakers in Washington can agree about lately. As evidenced by the lack of a Congressional budget resolution to fund the government that is on a continuing resolution autopilot, to the Super Committee’s failure to agree on what to cut, it is hard to find bipartisan consensus.

This is especially startling given that the stakes are so high now that sequestration—or automatic spending cuts that fall disproportionately on the U.S. military—is now the law of the land and is threatening to corrode the nation’s military might.

"Unless Congress takes action—right now—to reverse the cataclysmic effects of sequestration, the military will be facing an additional $500 billion in cuts." - Mackenzie EaglenFew seem in a hurry to address a problem that technically takes place in January 2013 even though serious consequences will begin to be seen this summer and fall.

Sequestration was constructed in a way meant to be so scary as to never happen. The additional half-trillion dollars that sequestration would cut from the defense budget over the next decade was supposed to provide a big incentive for lawmakers to sacrifices other fiscal priorities in order to reduce the deficit. The Super Committee had other ideas, however, and when it failed to reach an agreement, sequestration became law.

Unless Congress takes action—right now—to reverse the cataclysmic effects of sequestration, the military will be facing an additional $500 billion in cuts, on top of nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts already enacted by the Obama administration over the past three years.

Some members of Congress have already recognized the serious consequences of their own legislation. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) introduced a bill to find an alternate source of funds to offset the looming military and domestic discretionary spending cuts.

Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have introduced similar legislation that would stave off over $100 billion in planned reductions for FY 2013 alone.

But too many in Washington are content to wait until after the November elections to move on either bill. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) have both said they support President Obama’s threatened veto of any effort to undo sequestration if it does not include tax hikes as part of the deal.

Pushing off this issue until November will make the problem bigger and costlier to fix. Where to find the funds to avoid sequestration will also not likely be any more clear after the elections and a probably continued divided government. Republicans are hoping for a clean sweep and a mandate for domestic spending reductions, while Democrats are hoping for a resounding victory and a clear mandate to raise taxes as part of any sequestration deal. Reality may not match either’s dream.

The worst part about sequestration is that it would take effect in January 2013 — at the start of calendar year 2013, but three months into the fiscal year. Without the ability to plan in advance at the Pentagon, everything would go to the chopping block in the middle of the annual budget cycle. Military pay would be cut, major weapons systems would be canceled and companies would lay off workers. Most importantly, combatant commanders would go without the resources they need to ensure stability abroad even in the face of increasingly bellicose states like Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Making the U.S. military the bill-payer for America’s spending addiction may have been easy politics last summer, but it is an unacceptable solution. Both sides of the political aisle can, and should, agree to fix this disastrous legislation. Coming on top of earlier defense cuts that have already eroded America’s decades-old two-war standard, sequestration would destroy what is left of America’s military superpower status.

If Congress is really willing to preside over the death of America’s unique role in the world, it should be upfront and make that case to the American people. Otherwise, the President and Congress must get serious and work to undo sequestration now before it is too late.

For more on the devastating effects and long-term damage that sequestration would have upon the health of America’s military, please go to this piece, co-authored with defense scholar Michael O’Hanlon—author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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