By Megan Eckstein
Lawmakers have expressed a range of opinions on how to handle sequestration cuts to defense spending: some want Congress to keep the dollar amount of the cuts in place but let department heads figure out where to find those cuts, and some favor eliminating defense cuts but keeping or deepening cuts to domestic programs.
But Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who serves on the budget conference committee that met for the first time this week, said Senate Democrats are united behind the idea of treating defense and domestic budget cuts the same, and ideally eliminating them both for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 to allow some budget stability for government and industry.
Warner said yesterday afternoon that sequestration was set up to be “so stupid that no rational group of people would allow it to happen,” with “equal levels of stupidity on both sides,” referring to domestic an defense spending. He noted he came from one of the most defense-focused states in the country but said “I believe we need to alleviate [sequestration], but I don’t think the idea of choosing a ship repair contract versus a Head Start slot or an [National Institutes of Health] grant ought to be the choice. We’ve got to be able to find the will to do this in a parity basis, and I think the overwhelming majority on the Democratic side would agree with that.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) added that “only in Washington would people think somehow having an adequate funding level for defense would put the country on the right path while ignoring medical research, real human suffering, job creation potential. Even folks in the defense industry, I’m not sure, if you get them quietly in a corner, would agree that taking care of them somehow, or making sure they’re whole, is going to strengthen the country. You can’t have much of a defense over time if you don’t have the medical research, you don’t have the economic growth and you don’t have the strength in your workforce.”
Casey said he was committed to replacing sequestration altogether rather than giving it flexibility, saying, “I just disagree with that fundamentally.” Warner said he was confident the sequester could be removed while still maintaining savings in the budget.
But another budget conferee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said during his opening statement at the conference meeting this week that he did not favor eliminating sequestration cuts.
“I’m aware that there is a great deal of angst surrounding the impending sequester cuts, particularly those to the Department of Defense,” he said. “However, there should be no illusion that the Department of Defense is immune from wasteful spending, fraud and mismanagement that costs taxpayer millions and billions of dollars. I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort on oversight of DoD’s accounting and audit practices. I can tell you from experience that there is absolutely no basis for anyone to believe that the Pentagon is spending every taxpayer dollar wisely without a penny to spare. With DoD lacking even the most basic audit controls to detect and root out waste and fraud, opportunities for significant savings abound without even cutting a single program.”
He added he favors the idea of giving department heads more flexibility in deciding where to make cuts, but he made clear he opposed removing the budget cuts.
Grassley faces quite a bit of opposition in that view, even from him own party. Those involved in defense policy, particularly leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, have stressed over and over again that simply adding flexibility in the sequestration cuts isn’t good enough for maintaining a ready military; the cuts need to be removed completely.
HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) sent a letter to House leadership on Oct. 8 asking for a classified briefing by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey for all members of Congress to address the effects of sequestration on military readiness. “Every Member–not just those who sit on defense committees–should have the opportunity to hear firsthand the state of our military and its impact on U.S. national security before making budget decisions that will have a direct impact on America’s national interests and the men and women who wear our country’s uniform,” Forbes said when he sent the letter.
But Forbes said yesterday that House leadership has not agreed to set up that meeting with Dempsey.
“So far they have not even been willing to do that briefing, and my frustration is, it’s one thing if people understand what the risks are and the jeopardies we’re putting to national defense, but to not even get the facts and then be walking down this road I think is a travesty,” he said.
With the conference committee work just starting in earnest, it is unclear how feasible replacing sequestration either altogether or in part would be. Entitlements and tax reform will be part of the discussion, and past efforts to create long-term budget stability have stalled due in part to these issues. Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) wrote a letter on Oct. 31 to conference committee leaders asking that they first tackle discretionary spending levels for FY ’14 and ’15 before moving onto the more contentious issues so as to allow enough time for Congress to pass all 12 appropriations bills before short-term government funding runs out January 15.