How Defense Wonks Stopped Worrying and Learned to Accept Sequester

Posted October 1, 2013 at 5:49pm

Important shutdown news is getting lost in the rhetorical histrionics about Obamacare, the partisan power plays over blinking first and the personal strife for the furloughed federals. Topping the list: The sequester is surviving.

That’s especially true at the Pentagon. No matter what sort of miraculous bipartisan budget agreement might be hatched once the government is reopened and the debt limit raised, the sequester’s 9 percent cut to defense spending during the next decade looks to be locked in place.

There’s still an outside chance that, as part of a bargain giving Republicans the entitlement program curbs they’re dreaming about, Democrats might get to fund some of their priorities by easing up on the reductions to the domestic half of the discretionary budget.

But even under that most optimistic scenario, the Defense Department will probably be compelled to live with its $500 billion share of the fiscal austerity. The drive to abandon the sequester’s defense cuts, which for a time gained traction under the direction of powerful defense hawks in both parties, all but fizzled over the summer.

The Republicans crowing for increased military spending had to back away from that cause once their leadership decided to make the debate entirely about something else — i.e., whether to undermine the health care law or permit the agencies of government to keep running at the current sequester level.

“Defense has been a drive-by victim of this process,” says Gordon Adams, a military budget expert at American University and the nonpartisan Stimson Center think tank. “Most people who pay attention to money and the military are approaching the fifth stage of grief, which is acceptance.”

More and more, the form of that acceptance has been determination to make the most robust and efficient national defense possible with the $5 trillion in the 10-year budget that’s becoming predictable. Energy that could be spent on an uphill fight to do a little better than that, some senior Republicans concede, is better applied to the enormously complex and politically fraught debate over what to do without.

The sentiment is akin to what many corporate leaders say about taxes: Certainty about a code that’s not so great at least allows them to make the most of a stable situation, while uncertainty breeds poor business planning or costly procrastination.

“We need stability in defense budgets more than we need anything else,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the No. 2 Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s not just a question of the government shutdown, it’s not just a question of sequestration, it’s not just a question of living from CR to CR, which is just about the worst situation you can have if you’re trying to plan.”

Thornberry, speaking at a Tuesday forum on defense spending hosted by CQ Roll Call, said the Pentagon and its industrial base can adapt to almost any budget, so long as it is relatively free of mystery for years at a stretch. “It’s the unpredictability that is killing businesses of all sizes and shapes across America right now — and it is particularly having an effect on defense,” he said.

That’s a significant change in tone from what hawks in Congress, and the military’s top brass, have been saying about the perils of maintaining the 2011 sequester — which was assumed to appear so dangerous for the national defense, in the eyes of Republicans, that they’d be willing to raise some taxes to prevent the cuts from taking effect.

Since that assumption proved so wrong, there’s reason to be skeptical that a Congress resigned to the new normal will be able to agree — let alone get buy-in from the commanders — on a smart way to allocate the smaller pie without sacrificing American military superiority on land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.

Separated from their own self-interests, leaders on both sides of the Potomac concede it’s possible to pay for a smaller, but more highly skilled uniformed force equipped with sufficient up-to-date hardware and capable of responding to the most likely threats of the early 21st century. But that’s only if cold-eyed decisions are made soon to reduce compensation and insurance, and exacting decisions are made as quickly to excise much of the administrative overhead marbled throughout the military. (Estimates of the “tail to tooth” ratio, as the jargon has it for spending on desk jobs versus war fighting, range from $1 in $4 to $2 out of every $5.)

But abandoning those self-interests has never been a characteristic of players in defense policy.

Congress “fears taking the steps necessary to put the Defense Department on a healthier institutional footing because to do so would require changing policies and programs that some of its constituents and special interest groups fight hard to keep — like pay, benefits, weapons programs and bases that support local communities economically,” the Stimson Center said last week in its recommendations for a revamped defense budget.

Maybe so, but the top brass is just as much to blame, counters Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, a senior Democrat on Armed Services who was also at Tuesday’s conference

“When they come forward, everything is a requirement,” Sanchez said. “Everything is immediate, everything is a have to have thing, a really desired thing.”