Shadow Government

Sequestration as the preferred Defense option

The Nov. 23 deadline for a "Supercommittee" budget agreement is fast approaching, and no such agreement is as yet in sight. The Pentagon appears to be panicking over the prospect of sequestration, and with it a reduction of some $600 billion in defense-related spending over the next decade. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s warnings have ...

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

The Nov. 23 deadline for a "Supercommittee" budget agreement is fast approaching, and no such agreement is as yet in sight. The Pentagon appears to be panicking over the prospect of sequestration, and with it a reduction of some $600 billion in defense-related spending over the next decade. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s warnings have become ever more dire. He has said that sequestration will "invite aggression from U.S. adversaries", that it will result in a "hollow force" of "ships without sailors" and "brigades without bullets."

The Secretary should know better. Not because sequestration, if implemented, would not be a disaster for DoD, but because the absence of an agreement, which would trigger a sequester, does not mean that sequestration will ever come to pass. It is important to note that the sequester would only come into force for the Fiscal Year 2013 budget; in other words, nearly a year must still pass before any cuts are mandated. And the Congress thus has nearly a year to legislate the sequester into the dustbin of history. 

It has happened exactly that way before, as Mr. Panetta knows only too well. He was a veteran of the House Budget Committee in 1988 when the Congress reached a budget deficit agreement that wiped out a $20 billion sequestration that was supposed to have been "automatically" triggered by the 1985 Balanced Budget Emergency Deficit Control Act, popularly known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. And he was chairman of the House Budget Committee in 1990, when he played a major role in the enactment of Congressional legislation that again circumvented the 1985 Act by lowering sequestration levels from the "automatic" $16 billion that the Act would have mandated to just over $4.5 billion in budget reductions. Again in 1991, with Mr. Panetta still serving as House Budget Committee chairman, a smaller sequester of some $190 million was rescinded in subsequent legislation that year when the purported savings were found to be the result of a miscalculation.

It is arguable that the long term health of America’s defense posture would be better served if the Supercommittee fails to produce an agreement than if it does. It will be much harder for the Congress to rescind a budget deal to which all sides agreed, than to rescind a sequester that was the product of an absence of agreement. Even under the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that Defense could avoid cuts of $200-300 billion in a deal that totals $1.2 trillion; and those cuts will be difficult, if not impossible to restore. On the other hand, the Congress can be expected to rescind sequestration precisely because of the warnings that the Pentagon’s top leaders have issued. And once the Congress returns to square one, the prospects for protecting the Defense budget will radically improve.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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