- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog.
During last week’s congressional hearings, America’s military leaders outlined the dire consequences they envision if, as has long seemed likely, the sequestration provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act comes into effect. The hearings were scheduled by sympathetic Armed Services committees to give vent to the Pentagon’s alarm.
In one exchange, Rep. Mike Rogers asked the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff if he had informed the president of the dire consequences to readiness from sequestration beginning on March 1. "We have had that conversation," Gen. Martin Dempsey answered. Rogers followed up to ask how the president responded. "He assured me he’s working on it," said Dempsey.
The president "working on it" has not equated to producing a budget that piles up less than a trillion-dollar deficit for fiscal year 2013. It has not equated to finding means within his executive powers to minimize the effect of the reductions — to the contrary, the White House explicitly instructed agencies to spend and plan as though the law would not come into effect. It has not equated to working with Congress to strike a deal; the president has no meetings scheduled with congressional leaders. It has not equated to acknowledging his critics may have a point or have proposals that could be incorporated into his plan (he has not offered a plan). It has not even equated to acknowledging that mandatory spending is driving our debt. The president is allowing these cuts to discretionary spending in order to protect mandatory spending, otherwise known as "entitlement" programs.
Congress is stuck. It is stuck because two years ago markets started signaling concern about the level of America’s national debt and the rate at which the U.S. government continued to incur it. The Congressional Budget Office reported in December that federal revenues increased by $30 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year, but federal spending increased by $87 billion. We borrow $4.8 billion dollars a day. The United States borrows 31 cents of every single dollar it spends.
As the euro crisis has demonstrated, market confidence can collapse quickly and is very expensive to regain. Ratings agencies have already downgraded the U.S. because of our inability to bring our spending and revenue into balance. That is the political impetus behind draconian measures to force an end to deficit spending and produce a medium-term plan to ramp down our national debt. Unless we show markets the United States has the capacity to bring our budget into alignment, we will be at great risk of getting involved in the kind of escalating game of chicken European governments have been forced into over the past three years: committing ever more money to a firewall that forestalls a market run and driving interest rates up to devastating levels. And to be clear: markets are not to blame for gaming our currency. We are to blame for putting ourselves at risk by racking up so much debt.
Breaking the congressional deadlock requires presidential leadership. That’s why our form of government has a chief executive. But the president is now not only leading from behind in foreign policy, but also leading from behind in the domestic policy that is the basis of our international strength. Instead of working to prevent sequestration from going into effect — with two weeks remaining until training is curtailed for 80 percent of Army forces, the military faces what Gen. Dempsey described as an unprecedented readiness crisis, and the pivot to Asia becomes unaffordable — President Obama took the long weekend to golf in Florida with Tiger Woods. The military is claiming dread crisis, and the commander in chief has gone golfing. Is it possible all of us missed the seminal role Tiger Woods must have in breaking the political stalemate in Washington?