Sequestration was proposed from the beginning to be a hostage in larger and more complex political fights. Two years after the Budget Control Act was signed into law, sequestration remains a favored pawn in negotiations. This dynamic is one of the fundamental reasons that despite the fact that so many members of Congress dislike sequestration, it remains in effect.
In Washington, upcoming debates about government funding and the debt ceiling increasingly feel like Groundhog Day. Yet time has not altered or softened either side’s position on the size, scope or role of government. Unfortunately, this means the Defense Department seems on track for yet another “fiscal cliff”-like redux, which -- if so -- will result in sequestration sticking for a second year in a row.
While the negotiators surely have deja-vu, those watching know that past is prologue and the odds for a comprehensive deal are low. The same rough contour of issues has left Congress gridlocked since spring 2011. Even if the two sides work out a deal, any plan to replace the sequester will involve additional defense budget cuts. The new floor is the President’s 2014 budget request, which would replace sequestration, in part, with about $150 billion in defense cuts. But even that number is surely low. Some are even starting to consider military reductions that could go deeper than sequestration over the next decade.
The more likely result is that Washington will largely repeat 2013. Along with raising the debt ceiling, Congress will pass full year appropriations legislation absent both sequestration relief and an Obamacare delay. Democrats will be able to walk away with Obamacare intact, Republicans will keep spending cuts on the books, and sequestration’s full force will continue to erode military capabilities and readiness.
Except that because it is year two of sequestration and Pentagon leaders cannot employ many of the same softening tactics as they did this year to ease the pain, the bite will be harsher and more immediate on those in uniform, their families, civilians and the defense industrial base workforce. The consequences are already being felt and the longer sequester sticks, the harder and more expensive they become to fix later.
The personal impact of sequestration is magnified at a strategic level. The Joint Chiefs recently described before the House Armed Services Committee how the military will be unable to meet the already-reduced defense strategic objectives outlined by the President last January. The strategic deceleration will only worsen as the new fiscal year starts under continued budget stress. The Chiefs are now openly questioning whether the military can meet the requirements necessary to fight even one sustained major conflict in the near future.
While the national defense should be a bipartisan priority, right now other issues are relegating it to the back burner. In the meantime, real consequences are worsening for those in uniform. The price of recovery will be steep in dollars but more important in the time required to rebuild, opportunity cost and strategic risk.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.