The Skeptics

Let Sequestration Happen

Some members of Congress are anxious to undo sequestration, ignoring the inconvenient fact that they created the process in the first place. Instead of accepting responsibility, they are proposing legislation that would force the White House to outline the effects of the cuts. And people wonder why Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low.

But there is more than enough blame to go around. The Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-led Senate and the Obama White House had a chance to implement a range of proposals aimed at deficit reduction last summer. They chose to kick the can down the road, empowering an independent, bipartisan panel to make the tough choices for them. That effort failed.

If the Super Committee was unable to hammer out a compromise when the conditions were ripe last summer, it is unlikely that one will materialize this summer. Sequestration may be the only way to achieve real spending cuts. Let’s let it happen.

To be clear, sequestration is not the best way to cut the military budget, or federal spending overall. It wasn’t supposed to happen at all; the threat of spending cuts was supposed to compel the various parties to reach a compromise. But it may be the only feasible way to cut spending. And it isn’t going to get any easier in the future.

The Democrats are beginning to show their hand: this was never about cutting spending; it was always about raising taxes. Sen. Patty Murray explained yesterday that her party would allow the cuts in defense and nondefense spending to go forward, and the Bush tax cuts to expire, if Republicans didn’t agree to tax hikes on the wealthy. That isn’t likely to happen, and not just because the GOP is being stubborn. A sizable majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, are in favor of cutting military spending. More than half want to extend the Bush tax cuts for all.

Still, there are some Republican politicians who always have been willing to raise taxes in order to protect the Pentagon, despite what the public says it wants. I don’t fault Democrats for holding Pentagon spending hostage as much as I fault Republicans for allowing themselves to be maneuvered into a corner.

The GOP has a straightforward way out of the box: allow the defense and nondefense cuts to go forward, refuse a tax increase and renegotiate a debt reduction deal that doesn't leave entitlements—the real drivers of our long-term fiscal calamity—off the table.

Sequestration likely won’t be as bad as special interests and those in favor of ever-increasing military spending claim. The reductions would only apply to FY 2013 budget authority, not outlays. The Pentagon and Congress will then have greater flexibility starting in FY 2014 to adjust the reductions under the BCA spending caps. In the meantime, many programs could continue on funding already authorized.

We also must keep the cuts in proper perspective. The DOD base budget under sequestration would total $469 billion, about what we spent in 2006, not exactly a lean year for the Pentagon. And as for the claim that the military cuts will result in perhaps one million lost jobs, that seems implausible considering that the cuts would amount to less than three tenths of 1 percent of GDP.

More to the point, the defense budget should never be seen as a jobs program. In a dynamic, market economy, capital and resources adjust to changing demand. Some regions and municipalities that are relatively more dependent upon military spending might suffer some short-term effects, but there is evidence that economies reliant on the military can recover. Some regions could emerge stronger and more diversified. Other reporting indicates that some businesses are already positioning themselves to weather reduced government spending.

Americans spend more today on our military—in real, inflation-adjusted terms—than during the high point of the Reagan buildup. Some might justify these expenditures by claiming that the world is much more dangerous today. But the evidence for that is pretty thin. The Soviet Union on its worst day could do more damage in a few minutes than Al Qaeda has managed to inflict in over a decade. We are safer than most politicians are willing to admit.

If they embraced our good fortune, policy makers could cut military spending without undermining U.S. security. Shifting resources from a relatively unproductive and inefficient sector to a more productive one would be good for the economy. And lower military spending could even improve our foreign policy.

It simply isn't fair to saddle fewer troops with more missions. If we cut spending and reduced the size of the U.S. military, policy makers would have to be more discriminating in the use of force. But greater restraint by the United States would encourage other countries to take responsibility for their own security and share in the costs and risks of policing the global commons.

Strategic spending cuts informed by a realistic assessment of today’s threats would be ideal. Sequestration may not reach this ideal, but it may be the only way to achieve actual cuts in military spending.

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