Proceedings, January 2013
A close observer of defense-spending trends takes a look at dollars and sense and the looming budget challenges in the Pentagon.
Defense-budget headlines of late have concentrated on sequestration, as hand-wringing increased about the so-called fiscal cliff. Most coverage has focused on defense officials predicting dire consequences for the Department of Defense (DOD), or industry officials warning of job losses and collapse of certain technology sectors and associated businesses. The U.S. Naval Institute recently hosted Defense Forum Washington with a program titled “The Fiscal Cliff: What Does This Mean for Defense and National Security?” The conference focused on sequestration and its impacts. Speakers and panelists offered different perspectives on impact, ranging from disaster to a mere “pothole,” and on occurrence from irresponsible to a fait accompli that should happen to provoke fundamental changes in DOD.
Gordon Adams is a former Clinton administration defense budget analyst and has written extensively on the current “fiscal cliff” crisis. The Naval Institute interviewed him on 28 November to get his take on sequestration and the defense budget. Adams is speaking today at the Naval Institute’s Defense Forum Washington.
Can you put current sequestration in a historical context? Has anything like this happened before?
Yes, but never to this extent.
The sequestration mechanism was lifted wholesale from a 1985 bill called Graham Rudman Hollings. When it was passed in 1985 it was the last big U.S. effort in deficit and debt reduction. The sequestration mechanism was defined in that bill. . . . There were sequestrations under Graham Rudman Hollings. They were rather small, they were not on this order of magnitude, because this one actually sets targets, but they did happen. Once they happened, Congress reversed it. Basically fixed it, patched the hole. So that happened and they went away. It maybe one precedent for what would happen in January if there is a sequester. I don’t think we will, but if we do . . .
What we have here is an unprecedented showdown at the O.K. Corral.
Despite billions of dollars being raised and spent during the 2012 election cycle, last Tuesday changed very little in terms of the balance of power. Control of the House, Senate and White House remains the same, though Democrats picked up a handful of seats in Congress and the names and faces on the four defense committees also will be reshuffled in the next session. Still, there is a long list of priorities to be taken care of before the new Congress is sworn in at the beginning of January. Here are some of the biggest items in the national security arena:
What it is: In order to avert a crunch on U.S. borrowing last year, Congress and the President agreed to a deal that raised the debt ceiling but required the House and Senate to cut spending over the long term. The Budget Control Act required a bipartisan panel from the House and Senate to craft compromise legislation that would slash the debt by $1.5 trillion dollars. In the event a compromise could not be reached, an automatic trigger was put into place that would go into effect in January 2013. The trigger was designed to be a poison pill that compelled cooperation, but the deadline for compromise lapsed in November and started the clock ticking toward automatic across-the-board cuts totaling $500 billion each to defense and domestic discretionary spending over the next decade. In DOD, personnel accounts would be spared but shipbuilding plans, fighter programs, and ground vehicle modernization would all suffer equal cuts.
The so-called congressional super committee in 2011
Inside politics: Moderates in the House and Senate have backed a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases that include an end to the Bush-era tax cuts, reforms of the tax code and some changes to entitlement programs. Once, dubbed the “grand bargain,” widespread support has been fickle as each of the factions on the Hill and at the White House angled for better, more politically palatable deals. House Republicans as a bloc have steadfastly refused to back any bill that would increase taxes, but most agree that more revenues must be a part of any deal to cut long-term expenditures. Some Democrats have opposed any change to entitlements, though most members agree that the current system is not wholly sustainable.