Looming Budget Cuts: One Gigantic Bipartisan Cop-Out

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Army photo / Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth

U.S. soldiers searching for explosives in Shubazai, Afghanistan, Feb. 7.

Opposing budget “sequestration” is possibly the safest political position to take in America today.

Republicans oppose it, so do Democrats.

Hawks loathe it, so do many doves (for different reasons).

Congressional leaders want to avoid it, and President Obama has said it should not happen.

Yet, here we are—less than a month before it (once again) is set to take effect—and it is likely to happen.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle have recently admitted as much, the Pentagon is beginning to plan for the eventuality, and my meetings on Capitol Hill two weeks ago—with over 30 members and staff—revealed a striking, and bi-partisan, resignation to sequestration.

If sequestration is so unpopular—and the detrimental effects to America’s defense posture near-universally recognized—why is it likely to happen? The answer is actually quite simple: allowing sequestration to happen is the easiest political solution for both sides.

In effect, hating sequestration but allowing it to happen represents one gigantic, bi-partisan cop-out.

Few dispute that the size and nature of these “poison pill” cuts will have a substantial impact on defense capabilities. But, as some will counter, at least we’re cutting spending. Well yes, and no. The dirty little secret about sequestration is that it does virtually nothing about long-term debt reduction. Sequestration represents a ten-year budget haircut that does nearly nothing to address long-term spending trend lines.

This is not to say the Defense Department is without blame—far from it. The Pentagon has never undergone a full audit, and continues to delay such efforts. Billions of dollars could be saved if the defense budget—like weapons procurement and private contracting—were meaningfully reformed.

Our veteran’s organization continues to push for these, and other meaningful reform measures. And we’re serious about it. It’s not enough to talk belt-tightening; a few billion here and there won’t get it done. Our debt is a clear and present national security threat.

But the nature of these sequestration cuts is, to paraphrase the governor of Louisiana, “stupid.” Everything gets cut. Nothing gets reformed. See you in 10 years—when the debt is $25 trillion and Sequestration 3.0 is on our doorstep.

More importantly, note what’s largely missing from the sequestration discussion: reforms to mandatory spending, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Taken together—including net interest payments—these programs represent over 60% of the federal budget. They are the undisputed largest drivers of our current deficits and future debt. Any “budget control act” must reform these programs to make them solvent for future generations, lest we think we can raise enough revenue or cut enough aircraft carriers to balance our books.

csis chart

CSIS

Both sides understand these stakes, but refuse to move off of well-worn positions. The White House points at Congress and Congress points back at them. House Republicans rightfully point to deficit reduction legislation they’ve championed to replace sequestration while Senate Democrats somehow blame House Republican obstinacy for their inability to pass a Senate budget. Regardless of “who started it”, both sides are complicit in picking up the pieces.

As a defense and deficit hawk, I’m sympathetic to House Republican proposals that don’t include defense, and instead reform mandatory spending. In a perfect world, this is precisely what should happen. Instead, in the sequestration scenario, this bargaining approach has an opposite and unintended result. House Republican unwillingness to entertain targeted defense reforms actually makes the prospect of larger, indiscriminate cuts and no meaningful entitlement reform more likely.

The real problem, however, lies with President Obama and Senate Democrats. While the President spends significant political capital on gun control legislation, immigration reform, and a controversial Secretary of Defense nominee, he is AWOL on sequestration. President Obama refuses to lead; and instead of driving the budget discussion, replaces serious proposals with “balanced approach” campaign rhetoric. A cop-out of epic proportions.

The sequestration standoff has become so complicated and so politically delicate that neither side is willing to move. And so, the hostage situation continues. Except, the hostage can’t belong to both sides, which never ends well. Not only does the hostage die, but both sides try to save face and claim the death was somehow necessary, or worse, a good thing.

Washington resignation to sequestration is nothing but the political path of least resistance. Republican congressional leadership won’t touch defense. Democratic congressional leadership won’t touch entitlements. And the President won’t lead. Neither side is willing to budge. Both sides blame the other. And in the meantime, our military’s ability to “provide for the common defense” is undercut and the debt clock keeps ticking. If that’s not the definition of a “cop out,” I’m not sure what is.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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