By Valerie Insinna
If the sequester has taught Washington one thing, it’s that the threat of cutting defense spending is not as powerful as it used to be, panelists said during a March 12 roundtable on the impact of the budget crisis.
After the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011, dialogue centered on what the government could do to spare the Pentagon from reductions that were seen as devastating. However, as public attention shifted to the fiscal cliff earlier this year, the battle between entitlements and tax reform took center stage, they said.
Former Defense Secretary Leon “Panetta showed up last year before New Years [Eve] and said, ‘I’m going to lay off every civilian in the Pentagon,’ and nobody cared. Everybody kept talking about, ‘Holy cow, the economy is going to crash,’” said Russell Rumbaugh, director of the Stimson Center’s program on budgeting for foreign affairs and defense.
However, there might be more public outcry on defense spending further down the road as cuts are implemented, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal policy organization.
None of the panelists were confident that Congress and President Barack Obama would be able to reach a “grand bargain” to cut the deficit. They also seemed resigned to the idea that sequestration would be sticking around — and asserted that, in some ways, it wouldn’t be all that bad.
The reductions made by sequestration are “dumb” in the sense that they don’t distinguish between good and bad programs, Bixby said. However, he admitted he liked the savings.
“Having agreed to it as the price of not doing a big deal, it would be a mistake to simply shut it off,” he said. “I think there’s a certain amount of political accountability here. This is what they agreed to.”
Two presidential administrations and Congress have been unwilling to deal with the skyrocketing budget for the past seven years, said former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. Cuts are finally being made through the BCA and sequestration, but it’s as if Congress opened a box of budgetary tools, “found the bluntest tool in the box — a ball peen hammer — and that’s what they’re using right now.” Still, he said it’s the best tool they have so far.
Many Americans outside of the Beltway have already dealt with harsh fiscal realities as part of the recession, Nussle said. For them, a 2.5 percent federal budget cut simply doesn’t seem to be that difficult.
It’s also sometimes hard to justify not being able to reduce spending when there are so many examples of government waste or oversight, Nussle said, citing the Defense Department’s history of embarrassing audits. “I remember we had a hearing one time where we found out that they couldn’t find a ship. Actually, they couldn’t find three ships. … How do you lose a ship?”
Weapon systems are an easy target for cuts, but to really reduce costs, the Defense Department needs to figure out how to adjust the force to meet future challenges, Rumbaugh said.
“Do we want a large Army that’s going to fight large ground forces? Do we want a large Navy that’s going to never touch foreign shores? Those are different answers,” he said.