By: JONATHAN MORGENSTEIN
The winner of the presidential contest in Florida wasn’t even officially declared yet, but talk in Washington had already turned to sequestration. To many people — including myself — sequestration sounds like a penalty issued in a contact sport. The referee extracts a crucial player and permanently removes him from play.
Turns out, this is not far from what sequestration actually is. Sequestration extracts and permanently removes from play funding essential for America’s economy and defense, putting them at risk. Thus Congress must compromise with the president to prevent sequestration and ensure our long-term prosperity and security.
To understand the severity of sequestration — and how we got here — we must look to the summer of 2011. The federal government has run a budget deficit almost every year since the 1950s, under both political parties. So virtually every year, Congress must pass a law authorizing the government to borrow more money. Otherwise, the United States government would not be able to pay even the interest on its debts, and quite literally would go bankrupt.
Last year, the Tea Party Republicans in the House threatened to not authorize the government to borrow more money, and thereby deliberately bankrupt the country. The ransom they demanded was draconian cuts in non-military parts of the budget, including FEMA, the Centers for Disease Control and the FBI.
However, President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner cut a last-second deal. They agreed that the entire world’s economic system — and essential components of our government — should not be held hostage in routine spending and taxation negotiations.
They compromised, agreeing to raise the debt ceiling for two years, but if Democrats and Republicans could not agree on an alternative budget before Jan. 1, 2013, a pair of massive deficit-cutting policies would activate: (1) restoration of Clinton-era tax rates for all Americans, and (2) nearly 10 percent budget cuts across-the-board to most of the federal budget, to both Department of Defense and civilian agencies. These deep cuts are called sequestration, as the money is extracted and permanently removed from play.
This sequestration will be devastating for many essential government services that Americans need. The Office of Management and Budget described this process as “deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments and core government functions.” It would cripple our ability to equip, train and transport the world’s strongest military, leaving America and our interests vulnerable worldwide.
The defense budget has grown massively over the past decade of wars, doubling since 9/11. Therefore, as we wind down our mission in Afghanistan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged that we can sustain significant defense cuts. The Pentagon has planned to cut $487 billion over the next ten years. But an additional sequestration-mandated $600 billion in arbitrary cuts could dramatically impact our national security.
As sequestration’s deadline looms, Congress and the president must come together to find a strategic solution. We must avoid what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls the “meat ax” approach — cutting without carefully weighing the options. Just like the painful BRAC process a generation ago, if we are going to reduce our fiscal deficit, we must identify for trimming the significant fat that does exist within the defense budget. But we cannot cut muscle.
As home to the nation’s seventh-largest veteran population, the headquarters of America’s biggest defense contractors and more than 20 military bases, Virginia has a leading role in guarding America. We have strong advocates for both our national security and the Old Dominion in Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner. Both senators have a solid relationship with the White House and are willing to work with the president to make sure sequestration doesn’t do more damage than good.
However, that means the pressure is on influential House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to make difficult compromises as well, for the sake of our national security and Virginia’s economy. Cantor has a history of putting partisan posturing ahead of responsible governing compromises. During last year’s debt ceiling negotiations, Boehner repeatedly had to step in to meet President Obama halfway, while Cantor focused more on pleasing the tea party caucus than finding solutions.
In the next month, Virginia’s congressional leaders in Washington must work with Obama to find ways to reduce our deficits, while maintaining our national security and reinvigorating our tentative economic recovery. Congress — particularly the Republicans in the House — must compromise with the president to avoid sequestration and find a balanced approach to reducing our deficits into the future.
Jonathan Morgenstein served two tours as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq and as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is currently a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and is a non-resident fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JonathanMorgen.