By RYAN ALEXANDER
In a couple of weeks we will have a chance to revisit the holidays and immerse ourselves in all things “sequestration.” The deal brokered between the White House and Congress on New Year’s Day represented only Round 1 in the current fiscal fight: Now it’s time to take a swing at cutting wasteful and unnecessary spending. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, lawmakers do not love cutting the spending they actually control, particularly from the agency with the most spending of all — the Defense Department. But in order to balance the budget and strengthen our economy, Congress must take on every part of government, particularly the one that extends America’s might around the world.
The New Year’s Day deal essentially punted discretionary spending cuts until legislation extending last year’s budget expires in March. A portion of the discretionary cuts will come from defense, but the method of determining how much to cut is anything but straightforward. For fiscal year 2013, the deal uses categories called “security” and “non-security,” lumping in DOD with agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. In 2014, however, the cuts are determined according to the Congressional Budget Office category defining “defense” as just DOD plus DOE’s nuclear weapons funds. And after 2014, it’s up to the fiscal gods to decide how to allocate cuts.
Making Pentagon spending share the pain equally with other federal functions would seem a common-sense mechanism since defense consumes nearly 60 percent of the discretionary budget. For all its faults, sequestration was designed to keep everything on the table, including Pentagon spending. Every serious budgetary reform proposal of the past few years, including the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin proposals, would make defense shoulder at least half of any discretionary spending reductions.
That’s why we joined seven other fiscally conservative organizations last week in sending a letter to Congress asking them to protect our nation’s economic security by mandating at least $50 billion to $100 billion in savings from the Pentagon budget each year over the next decade. That number represents the savings taxpayers were promised in the Budget Control Act of 2011, when lawmakers created the sequestration mechanism to force themselves to find $1 trillion in spending cuts. Unfortunately, Congress failed at that task, resulting in our current predicament.
Taxpayers for Common Sense has repeatedly recommended that sequestration-level cuts be retained even if the meat-ax method of enforcement that makes sequestration so unpalatable falls by the wayside. There’s no shortage of ideas on where to cut: TCS is one of many respected policy organizations across the political spectrum that have issued proposals that would responsibly achieve hundreds of billions of defense savings over the next decade.
Reining in spending will take political courage, but the time is ripe. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are ending, and the spending boom that more than doubled the defense budget since their launch a decade ago must end. Even defense industry executives recently conceded that the defense budget could shrink at least an additional $150 billion over the next decade. The full impact of sequestration would still result in a smaller post-war drawdown than those following the Vietnam War, Korean War or Cold War.
This paradigm shift goes hand in hand with increasing American support for a sustainable, balanced solution to the budget crisis. A recent poll by Rasmussen showed 65 percent of Americans prefer “across-the-board spending cuts” to sequestration alternatives that exempt Pentagon spending. The debate doesn’t fall along party lines, either: While some assumed Pentagon cuts would alienate Republicans, a rising number are committing to balanced spending cuts across the board. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s alternative to sequestration, which included significant cuts to the Pentagon budget, was applauded by The Washington Times’s Emily Miller as “Pentagon cuts that make sense.”
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has said the Defense Department had “lost its ability to prioritize” in the post-Sept. 11 spending binge. The result is an overextended military that often spends too much on functions that provide too little security.
Our fiscal crisis has finally forced DOD to develop that skill again.
We should help rather than hinder it.
Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.