Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), has propagated a meme about the automatic cuts to the defense budget enshrined in the Budget Control Act of 2011. McCain, an avowed opponent of the cuts, reflexively insists on referring to them as “mindless.” It seems this meme is spreading. Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis repeated McCain’s assertion in a recent SASC hearing. The always-blunt former CENTCOM commander argued, “no foe could wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving.”
With all due respect to McCain and Mattis—and much is due—they are wrong. The most mindless thing about the Budget Control Act has actually been the Pentagon’s response to it.
First, a clarification is in order. Sequestration is not wreaking havoc on the defense budget. Sequestration occurred in March 2013. It made across-the-board cuts of the same percentage to all Department of Defense accounts except the personnel account (out of which service members are paid) and the Overseas Contingency Operations account (which is supposed to pay for the war in Afghanistan). Sequestration’s implementation meant the military lost $37 billion in one day. It could certainly have been called mindless.
But it is not sequestration that is responsible for across-the-board cuts now. The across-the-board cuts were a one time thing. Since then, caps have been placed on the budget, but the Pentagon was allowed to choose what was cut and how. It has decided not to make those choices. As defense budget expert Cindy Williams, of MIT’s Security Studies Program, explained in Foreign Affairs in late 2013:
It didn’t have to be this way. President Barack Obama signed the BCA in August 2011. By the end of the year, the super committee established to craft a fiscal bargain that would replace the nine-year automatic budget cuts embedded in the bill had crashed and burned, triggering the nine-year budget cuts that began with the March 2013 sequestration. So the White House and the Department of Defense have had two years to develop a national security strategy consistent with the new budget limits, design forces and programs to match that strategy, point the Pentagon down a somewhat less abrupt budgetary glide path, and institute measures to smooth the downsizing. Instead of doing any of these things, the Obama administration and the Department of Defense have played a protracted game of chicken with Congress. All that time was wasted.
What’s worse, officials seem to have learned nothing from their failures. Instead of crafting their own coherent plan to absorb the required cuts, they will again sit by and let the arbitrary sequestration machine make their decisions for them. For 2014, the BCA requires a reduced defense budget, but it allows policymakers to choose what to cut; it does not demand that every defense account be cut by the same percentage through sequestration. Rather, it calls for sequestering only the part of the appropriated defense budget that exceeds the BCA’s cap. If the Pentagon had submitted a budget consistent with that limit, and if Congress had appropriated that amount, there would be no sequestration for 2014. But defense officials chose not to comply with the cap, and Congress, as of September 2013, looks poised to appropriate more than its own budget-control law allows. If that happens, the Pentagon will be in for a second round of mechanical cuts.
A deal between House and Senate Budget Committee chairs Paul Ryan and Patty Murray in December 2013 let the Pentagon of the hook with a deal to raise the spending caps slightly. But that deal was only in effect for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The Department of Defense is once again back where it started.
Williams articulated a number of steps the Pentagon could have implemented to comply with the budget caps. These recommendations included reforms to military pay and benefits, delaying modernization, accepting tiered readiness in the short term, shifting personnel from active duty to the reserves, and reevaluating strategy, or some combination thereof. Some of these steps the Department of Defense has attempted only haltingly. Others have been thwarted by congressional parochialism. But most have been ignored.
The fiscal year 2016 Department of Defense budget request is $35 billion over the limit imposed by the Budget Control Act. Its five-year budget plan also fails to comply with the caps. It remains to be seen whether Congress will appropriate the requested amount.
The Pentagon has had years to prepare for this eventuality. It has instead relied on wishful thinking. Its response has been mindless and should across-the-board cuts occur again, it would have no one to blame but itself.