The military lost in the fiscal cliff deal

DOD/Erin Kirk-Cuomo

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief the press at the Pentagon, Jan. 10, 2013. Panetta and Dempsey discussed the effects of sequestration if it were to take effect at the end of March.

Article Highlights

  • The bottom line: The fiscal cliff deal did not save the military. It may have wound up sealing its budget fate instead.

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  • The political dynamics of the threat of sequestration have changed dramatically in the past three months.

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  • Consensus is solidified that the military must absorb reductions up to and possibly beyond the amount of sequester.

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Headlines indicated that the new year's fiscal cliff deal was a reprieve for the U.S. military, which pushed back sequestration by two months. The reality is that the latest last minute deal did not save defense.

For starters, it was not a "punt" on sequestration but rather a down payment. And the military had to pony up a fraction of the funds as its own partial billpayer to buy more time.

In classic back-to-the-future form, Washington has established a new set of deadlines or mini cliffs for March. For the next negotiation, politicians were sure to keep sequestration alive proving that it remains a favored political hostage to fights about taxes, debt, and spending.

House Republicans have said that any increases in the debt ceiling must be matched with equal amounts of spending cuts. This means that a debt deal would require about one trillion dollars in spending cuts. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out, this requirement comes on top of another trillion dollars that would be needed to offset sequestration. Congress and the president have now doubled the size of the problem and therefore made it even harder to solve. 

The result is that the likelihood of sequestration has only grown. That's because the political dynamics of the threat of sequestration have changed dramatically in the past three months. While originally proposed by President Obama's staff to coerce Republicans into voting for higher taxes, the lopsided fiscal cliff deal gave the president that outcome and left the GOP wanting much more. Given that there is no Republican consensus to let America default on its bills, Speaker of the House John Boehner has indicated the most powerful leverage his party now has is to let sequestration kick in. 

As Stephen Moore writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work." 

Republicans are fully willing to shoot the sequester hostage come March. While both sides do not like the arbitrary nature of the sequester, consensus is solidified that the military must absorb reductions up to and possibly beyond the amount of sequester. 

The bottom line: The fiscal cliff deal did not save the military. It may have wound up sealing its budget fate instead.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

 

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