by Laicie Heeley [contact information]
Congress Can’t Avoid its Budget Responsibility
This post originally appeared on the Truman Project's Doctrine Blog on July 17, 2012.
Recent reports indicate that lawmakers may soon consider a bill to delay $1.2 trillion in automatic spending over a decade. The bill would delay sequestration cuts, set to take place in January 2013, until March of the same year. But putting off the tough choices that will inevitably have to be made will not lead us any closer to a solution to the country’s deepening debt, and could cause irreparable harm.
Sequestration, which would require cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending equally, was never meant to come into force. It was engineered, as a part of a 2011 agreement to raise the debt limit to force political compromise by encouraging Democrats to agree to domestic spending cuts and Republicans to acquiesce to tax increases. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, sequestration was meant to be “a trigger so irrational that the prospect of it would … drive the leadership to do what was needed.”
As such, the policy is designed so that the threat of major and abrupt cuts would have a jarring effect. The cuts would take place immediately, forcing individual agencies to deal with a sharp drop-off in spending. And because the law requires that cuts be applied uniformly across accounts and programs, sequestration would severely limit the departments’ flexibility to shift focus to those programs deemed most relevant to future needs.
This is of particular concern to the Department of Defense, which relies on the ability of its leaders to identify and prepare for the most pressing national security threats.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that sequestration in its current form is flawed, but the argument has remained largely political. Rep. Adam Smith outlined the irony of the current conservative position on sequestration, saying they “ignored both their own role in creating sequestration in the first place and the fact that their stubborn resistance to any increase in revenues is the biggest reason why sequestration is even a possibility… as much as these Republicans like to claim they’re deeply concerned about cuts to our defense budget, their votes for the BCA proved they care much more about blocking any increase in revenue, no matter how small or no matter the source.” Smith adds, “They prioritized protecting even the most outlandish tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations over protecting our defense budget. And they continue to do so.”
Despite the obvious consequences of inaction, many lawmakers would prefer to put off the decision, hoping to avoid a confrontation prior to the November elections and before a potential new administration and Congress take office in January.
In an obvious move to disregard not only sequester, but also original caps set by the Budget Control Act, the House recently passed a fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act which was nearly $4 billion over the administration’s request, and $8 billion over the level set in the Budget Control Act. As Rep. Loretta Sanchez stated in The Hill, “Republicans were unwilling to accept all of the cuts that were carefully vetted through the system and considered by our top military officials — so how can Republicans say that they are serious about reducing the nation’s deficit?”
Though the decisions that must be made are far from easy, they are also far from impossible and absolutely necessary given the current budget equation.
Senator Carl Levin stated at the National Press Club recently that “We’ve got to make hard choices, and the only choice that really is an acceptable one, the correct one, and one which is politically feasible, is to have a balanced solution, a solution which includes additional spending cuts but prioritized, prudent. No area can be exempt.”
We must begin to deal with our debt soon, or risk jeopardizing not only national security, but health care, transportation, education, and the many industries we depend on for a strong economy.
Laicie Heeley is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.