Congress and the White House so far have refused to make the hard choices necessary on federal spending. There is no long-term budget agreement, and Congress can’t even muster the will to agree on an annual budget.
The only action, unless an 11th-hour agreement decides otherwise before March 1, will be the automatic “sequestration” cuts in spending.
Sequestration is the one thing our elected officials in Washington could agree on — but none of them like it. With good reason: It would lop off chunks of the federal budget in meat-ax fashion, using across-the-board cuts undirected by sound policymaking.
The outgoing U.S. secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, is a veteran budget expert in Washington, and in recent days he has vented about the federal government’s abdication of its fiscal responsibility.
“This is no way to govern the United States of America,” he said. “Not only have they failed to come together around a big plan to reduce the deficit, they have also failed in their basic responsibility to pass appropriations bills that provide the resources and certainty needed to run the government.”
And in congressional testimony, he added: “Sequester was not designed as a mechanism that was supposed to happen. It was designed to be so nuts that everybody would do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen.”
As we’ve said many times, the federal government’s fiscal mess is so huge that military spending must be part of any overall strategy to address it. At the same time, the Pentagon should base its spending decisions on a responsible weighing of our defense needs. It should set sound priorities, then stand up to the defenders of the status quo.
Too often, responsible priority-setting is short-circuited by a host of self-serving, nearsighted factors: Congressional pork-barreling. Parochial maneuvering by the individual service branches. Acquisition boondoggles and cost overruns.
Sequestration — which would cut defense spending by $42 billion this year, on top of $487 billion in 10-year cuts Panetta is already implementing — worsens the problem because, unlike Panetta’s current plan, it isn’t guided by priority-setting.
Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009-12, noted in the Wall Street Journal last week that “whether or not Congress avoids sequestration by March 1, defense spending will likely be cut by at least 10 percent over the next decade. As 20 percent of the federal budget and 50 percent of discretionary spending, it will be part of any longer-term budget deal.”
Flournoy outlined general ideas that would help keep cutbacks from undermining military effectiveness: a reduction in the military’s civilian work force (over the past decade it increased by more than 100,000); reducing the costs of military health care (it’s increasing annually at 10 percent, compared with 6 percent in the nation overall); and a new round of base closings.
The Pentagon’s acquisition process — no surprise — is rife for greater efficiency, she wrote: The Department of Defense “is still operating with procurement timelines unresponsive to need, perverse incentives for program managers, inadequate numbers of trained acquisition professionals and insufficient dialogue with industry.”
And U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to his credit, continues to prod his colleagues to look at specific weapons systems for reduction or elimination.
Was there a focus on any of this during the recent Senate hearing on the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Panetta as defense secretary? No. And that’s a poor reflection on the lawmakers presuming to guide national policy.
Meanwhile, the Navy just announced it will be deploying only one, rather than two, aircraft carrier groups to the Persian Gulf due to fiscal constraints. That’s just one of many cutbacks that will be necessary in an era of restrained military spending.
Again, such cutbacks are not necessarily a bad thing. But as long as our elected leaders in Congress and the White House neglect their duties to settle the big budget questions, our military is unduly burdened by that failure of leadership at the top.