Sequestration Countdown: Five Months to Go

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DoD Photo / Glenn Fawcett

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday

It’s almost funny the way that Congress poured gasoline into its chambers last year, with each party convinced the other side would never light the match. Yet that is what is drawing closer every day.

Ash Carter, the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday that sequestration will lead to a 10% cut in the non-personnel slice of the Pentagon budget as of January 2, an exemption written into the law, including funding for the Afghan war.

The Pentagon plans to shift stateside operating dollars into war accounts to cushion the blow of sequestration on the war effort. These and other required cuts “would represent a major step toward the creation of an unready, hollow military force,” Carter said.

If lawmakers and President Obama fail to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package by January 2, an International Harvester combine will mow down federal discretionary spending by that sum over the coming decade; half of it – about $600 billion – will come from the military.

Much of Wednesday’s hearing dealt with political theater – Democrats wanting defense contractors to issue supposedly required legal warnings of possible layoffs to their workers just prior to November’s election, and Democrats, citing guidance this week from the Department of Labor, saying the law doesn’t apply in this case.

The cuts to military spending would scale it back to 2006’s level, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is the key fact that seems to be overlooked by partisans on both sides of this contentious issue. Many Americans would be happy to have to live within their 2006 paychecks.

The lawmakers and Carter and Zients spoke of the ins and outs of implementing sequestration – and how “devastating” it would be to the Pentagon and the economy as a whole – but there was very little discussion on any compromise that might break the deadlock.

Partisanship on both sides was thick, even from one of the witnesses: “There are five months remaining for Congress to act,” Zients said. “What is holding us up right now is the Republican refusal to have the top 2% pay their fair share.”

It’s a crude way to govern – heck, it’s an insult to the word – but gridlock has taken over. Republicans will not strike a deal that includes tax increases, while the Democrats will not strike a deal that doesn’t include them.

“In the very unfortunate event that Congress fails to pass the balanced deficit-reduction package and avoid sequestration the administration will indeed be prepared to issue the sequestration order on January 2nd, and to manage its implementation,” Zients said. “But let me be very clear, no amount of planning — no amount of planning — will mitigate the damaging effects of sequestration.”

Yet the nation careens down that road like a drunken driver. Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the armed services committee, recalled what he said he’d heard from an unidentified “senior military official” recently:

America’s inability to govern ourselves, past sequestration, plays directly into the hands of those who spread the narrative of American decline and will ultimately thrust us into a more dangerous world.