The sequester is here to stay -- now the military needs to get to work

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chad C. Strohmeyer

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey speaks with U.S. service members at Yokota Air Base, Japan, on April 25, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The White House knows the sequester is bad policy, but occasionally views it as good politics.

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  • No pain means no change for the defense budget and the U.S. military.

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  • It’s time for the military to get busy on an honest and public accounting of sequestration's effects.

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The sequester has been law for almost two years. But the Pentagon’s delayed planning for implementing it has now made it easier for Congress to keep massive defense cuts on the books.

The military wasn’t given their marching orders from the White House to begin formal planning for sequestration until the end of December 2012, just days before it was set to become law.

This political calculation – wait, wait, wait, never mind -- on the part of the administration is now hurting our troops and setting back efforts to undo sequestration for the remainder of the decade.

Think about it this way: The White House first loved sequestration (remember the president threatening to veto any efforts to undo it?), and then decided it was a bad idea.  

As a result, planning for the on-again/off-again cuts that have never really been off has been an exercise in political contortionism.  

Military leaders are at the beck and call of a capricious White House which knows the sequester is bad policy, but occasionally views it as good politics.  

Congress hasn’t been much better.  

Some members have bemoaned the profligacy of the Pentagon, while others have talked up the machete like approach to trimming defense.  

But while Congress as a whole has been incapable of agreeing about how to roll back epic cuts in defense spending, they’ve been quick to act to protect other federal priorities feeling immediate pain as a result of sequestration.

From long lines at the airport to meat inspector furloughs threatening food safety and supply, Washington has shown it can mobilize in short order when prompted.

But collectively these carve-outs have softened the implementation of the sequester and made it more palatable. That makes it easier to lock it in permanently because it is simply no longer a forcing function requiring an immediate compromise solution.

Nor have military and civilian defense officials done themselves any favors. By failing to detail earlier the deleterious impact of the sequester on the military, defense leaders themselves made it easier for Congress to stand firm on the spending cuts and move on to other higher-profile problems.

The chiefs were complicit in abiding by and defending the political decision not to properly and thoroughly plan for sequestration.

Just last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs went so far as to say it would have been “literally impossible” to build an alternate budget that acknowledged the law.

But just over a year ago, Pentagon officials crafted two budgets for fiscal year 2013 after the Budget Control Act set newly reduced spending caps for the Defense Department. As a result, officials began revising defense strategy downward to meet the new fiscal realities. The Pentagon’s draft alternate budget eventually replaced the original one and a variant later was submitted to Congress.

By claiming that this act of planning and due diligence could not have been repeated, the chairman further hurt the credibility of Department of Defense leaders with Capitol Hill. While it is true that officials did not have time between March 1 and the submission of the president’s budget to Congress on April 10 to come up with a new budget, they should have anticipated the possibility of the law staying in effect.

The c hairman of the Joint Chiefs and other defense officials would be wise to stop looking back and defending past decisions.

It’s time for them to get busy working on an honest and public accounting of the effects of continued sequestration on the US military over the next fiscal year.

The sooner, the better.

Congress must insist Pentagon officials take into account sequestration and resubmit the president’s 2014 budget request. In fact, Senators Levin and Inhofe, leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to this effect to Secretary Hagel on Friday.

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees should now include this directive in their versions of the defense authorization bill later this summer.

Sequestration has already lowered the federal government’s spending baselines. Sequestration or similar spending levels are the new reality in the draft House and Senate budgets for 2014 written by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray.

Now, any dollar above these amounts will now be considered "growth" in the defense budget. That means that any attempts to restore funding will start to look like additional spending, rather than a sober restoration of much-needed security.  

In other words, the sequester is here to stay.  

Had Pentagon officials provided detail about how and where they would implement these painful spending reductions in April, politicians could clearly have understood the consequences of their choices. Not providing them publicly has only made it easier for Washington to absorb the sequester.

No pain means no change for the defense budget and the U.S. military. This time, Pentagon leaders had better get it right.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studes.

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