by Mieke Eoyang & Matt Bennett via Politico.
A sword of Damocles is dangling over the Defense Department. Congress and President Barack Obama hung it up intentionally, in a good-faith effort to hasten deal-making on the budget deficit. But the threat has not had its intended effect of pushing lawmakers toward a grand bargain. So the time has come to ratchet up the pressure.
Late last year, as the debate over lifting the debt ceiling threatened to derail the U.S. economy, Congress created sequestration — more than $500 billion in deep and indiscriminate future defense cuts and another half trillion in domestic cuts all designed to be harmful. The idea was that the specter of these cuts would force Congress to reach a grand bargain, solving the long-term fiscal shortfalls.
But that’s as far as it went. Congressional Republicans have remained loyal to tea party dogma and squarely oppose a balanced deal. But with sequestration looming, that obstructionism is not only irresponsible, it could be dangerous.
A balanced solution will most likely include additional Pentagon cuts beyond the $487 billion both sides agreed were necessary. However, it’s the mechanism of the sequester, more than the depth of the cuts, that causes the problem.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has testified that sequestration would be “devastating.” He told Congress that the cuts would require the Pentagon to “throw [its defense] strategy out the window.” And the administration has done its part to head this off: The president proposed a budget in February that, taken as a whole, would result in enough savings to avoid sequestration. He has now instructed the DOD not to bother planning for sequestration cuts — noting that they would be damaging and expecting that Congress will reach a real budget deal.
But his faith may be misplaced. Congress has failed every attempt to put together a grand bargain that would lift the threat of sequester. The congressional supercommittee, charged last year with making the hard decisions necessary to avoid sequestration, could not reach a bipartisan solution and dissolved. Then in April, House Republicans proposed a defense budget that would pay for repeal of sequestration by slashing food stamps and Medicaid. Not one Democrat voted for this news release disguised as legislation. The bill died in the Senate.
Republican rhetoric has been equally unhelpful. GOP leaders in Congress, including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and California Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have all demanded that Democrats accede to a repeal of sequestration without a broader deal on deficits. Democratic leaders in both houses properly rejected this one-sided ploy.
So what to do now? With Congress stalled, the administration is starting contingency planning in case it has to implement defense sequestration. Even if an eleventh-hour deal is struck, planning for these cuts is a good idea. It might even improve chances that Congress does its job.
First, preparing for sequestration increases the pressure on members of Congress by calling their bluff. The lack of concrete information about the impact of sequestration has allowed members to respond with unserious proposals — like the House bill. Perhaps if the administration lays out the precise consequences, they would negotiate in earnest.
Second, planning for the sequester shows a good-faith effort to comply with the Budget Control Act in a way least harmful to our national security. The DOD is complex and extraordinarily important. In the military, failure to plan has consequences. (See, for example, Iraq, circa 2004.) If Congress can’t reach a deal and the sequestration sword does fall, the Pentagon’s lack of planning could have serious consequences on military readiness.
Third, understanding the economic consequences of sequester increases the political pressure on Congress. For example, defense contractors must comply with labor laws that require 60 to 90 days’ notice of major layoffs. Under that timeline, contractors would have to send out layoff notices about one week before the elections. By beginning to plan for the unthinkable, the Pentagon would start making clear just who would get this nasty October surprise in their state or district.
Finally, it isn’t just the Pentagon that should be preparing for sequestration. Those on the left who care most passionately about preserving nondefense discretionary spending should be putting their war games together as well. Making indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts is a bad way to trim any budget, defense or domestic, and advocates should make sure they are making that case persuasively to Congress.
There is little debate that sequestration would be bad or that Congress should avoid triggering it by reaching a deal. Yet some in Congress believe that it is safe to play political games with sequestration. It is time to help those members get real.
Mieke Eoyang, director of the National Security Program at Third Way, served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and as defense policy adviser to Sen. Ted Kennedy. Matt Bennett is vice president and co-founder of Third Way, a moderate progressive think tank.