Many conservatives and Republicans are greeting the looming sequestration spending cuts with a collective yawn. "The much-ballyhooed 'sequester' is a cut of $85 billion in a nearly $4 trillion federal budget. Good, let’s do it," writes one contributor to National Review Online's symposium on sequestration.
It's true that sequestration is a tiny cut to total federal spending. But it is also true that sequestration is a major cut to defense spending.
According to the House Armed Services Committee, the 2011 Budget Control Act (the law that imposed both spending caps and sequestration) will force the Marine Corps to shrink by 25 percent--from 202,000 Marines to 145,000. What's more, "by the end of calendar year 2013, less than half of our ground units will be trained to the minimum readiness level required for deployment," Marine Corps commandant James Amos testified to Congress this month.
The Army will lose 143,000 soldiers, dropping from an end strength of 569,000 troops to 426,000. According to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno's congressional testimony, 78 percent of Army units will "significantly curtail training" because of sequestration. The Navy will delay the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. And 800,000 civilian employees working for the Department of Defense will face a 20 percent pay cut. These are just a few of the ways the military will cope with sequestration.
The problem is not simply that sequestration is designed poorly, which it is. The problem is not simply that President Obama is using scare tactics to beat down House Republicans, which he is. The big problem is the sheer size of the Budget Control Act's cuts to defense: roughly $1 trillion over ten years.
Think it's easy to find that much fat to cut from the military? It's not. Consider the following:
Senator Tom Coburn released the most aggressive deficit reduction plan of any member of Congress two years ago before the Budget Control Act was passed. The Oklahoma senator's "Back in Black" plan outlined $9 trillion in deficit reduction--nearly twice the amount of deficit reduction in the House GOP budget written by Congressman Paul Ryan. If there was a program that could be cut, Coburn proposed cutting it.
And how much did Coburn propose cutting from defense? The same amount later cut by the the Budget Control Act's budget caps and sequestration: $1 trillion over ten years.
To Coburn's credit, he got very specific about what he would cut. Here are a few examples:
--shutting down elementary schools on military bases
--make veterans pay more for health care under TRICARE
--cancel the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the Navy and Marines and replace it with the F/A-18 Super Hornet
--eliminate one of the country's 11 aircraft carriers
--shrink the Army by 65,000 soldiers
If the "smart" way to spend $1 trillion less on defense involves cutting this much muscle from the military, it is no surprise that sequestration's arbitrary across-the-board cuts are even worse.
So the sequestration fight doesn't present Republicans with any good options. House Republicans passed bills in the last Congress to redistribute sequestration's nearly $500 billion in defense cuts to other programs, but President Obama and Senate Democrats say they're not willing to negotiate a "cuts-only" deal. They want another big tax hike on top of the $600 billion tax hike they got on January 1 in the "fiscal cliff" deal. And they want to keep most of the defense cuts. What they really want, most of all, is to break the Republican party and win back the House in 2014.
Some Republicans have floated the idea of giving Obama more flexibility in implementing sequestration, but that carries its own risks. "If you just give the president a blank check," one congressional aide told me, "he will force the military to do things that are in the long-term very unwise ... base closures, divesting of significant naval assets, divesting of significant aircraft and drone assets."
Another option for Republicans is to call for suspending the sequester in whole or in part. That runs counter to the mantra of many House conservatives that the "only thing worse than defense cuts is no cuts at all." But is that really true? It would be one thing to cut a trillion dollars from the military as part of a plan to avert a debt crisis, as Senator Tom Coburn proposed. But weakening the military without solving the debt problem? Without even making a serious dent in it? What good is that? What will happen to an already-weakened military if and when a debt crisis actually hits?