Last month, in his regular column for Foreign Policy, defense budget expert Gordon Adams decided to switch gears and write a “children’s story.” The story centered on the “sequestration bogeyman”—a scary monster, which Pentagon officials and hawkish legislators use to make their case for increasing the defense budget. Adams’ story was more a lament though, about how people—both advocates of increased military spending and often journalists covering defense—misuse the term “sequestration” because the “bogeyman” he speaks of doesn’t actually exist.
Sequestration, as discussed here previously, is a mechanism by which across-the-board cuts are made to both defense and domestic spending if Congress appropriates money for any given fiscal year above the spending limits established by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). The mechanism only went into effect once, in 2013 after the “supercommittee” failed to find $1.2 trillion in savings as part of the 2011 agreement to raise the debt ceiling. Across-the-board cuts will only occur again if Congress appropriates money above the established budget caps. Under the caps though, the Department of Defense is allowed to cut any way it pleases—picking and choosing the most appropriate places to trim.
Because there is no chance Congress will appropriate money above the caps, it would make sense that those in favor of increasing the defense budget would argue against the cap and not sequestration. Judging by the rhetoric of Pentagon officials, and hawkish members of Congress, however, they have chosen a different route.
For yesterday’s Politico Pro Defense newsletter (subscription required), Jeremy Herb interviewed several defense analysts on the use of the term sequestration by those advocating a bigger defense budget. Quoted in the story, Adams once again cited the “sequestration bogeyman” and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments expressed his frustration with the scare tactic. According to Herb, Harrison stated, “I’m just exhausted by the misuse of the term sequester, and I point the finger firmly at DoD. They made a deliberate decision to start calling it sequester-level instead of BCA budget level, because sequester sounds worse.”
Dissenting from Adams’ and Harrison’s critiques in Herb’s story was Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. She asserts that most people simply use “sequestration” as shorthand for the budget caps. Eaglen argued, according to Herb, “The words are wrong, but the intent is shared. There’s consensus on what it means, and therefore it doesn’t matter … It means a budget of $499 billion and in everyone’s mind, it means reverting to the caps.”
Eaglen is likely correct that many people, wrongly, use sequestration as shorthand for the budget caps. However, it is not at all clear that hawkish legislators, including the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and defense officials, up to and including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, use it as such.
For example, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed from early March, John McCain and Mac Thornberry, the chairmen of the Armed Services Committees, argued specifically against sequestration. That they were not referring to the BCA caps is clear midway through their piece, when they refer to waste at the Department of Defense: “But sequestration does not target Pentagon waste. It cuts spending recklessly across the board, good programs and bad.” This statement is not true of the budget caps. Spending cuts can be targeted as long as they remain under the spending limit for that particular fiscal year. Across-the-board cuts only occur when money is appropriated above the cap. Since Congress will not do so, McCain and Thornberry are either using sequestration as shorthand for the budget cap with no clue how the law actually works. Or, more likely, they are using the term sequestration as a scare tactic.
McCain is perhaps the most egregious offender in this regard. He consistently refers to sequestration when discussing the defense budget. While he could be using it as shorthand, his constant references to it as “mindless” or a “meat axe” knowing full well across-the-board cuts are not on the table, betray either a complete lack of knowledge for how the BCA caps work or his actual intent to use the term as a scare tactic.
But McCain is hardly alone in his misleading use of the term “sequestration”. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is no stranger to misusing the word. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March, Carter stated, “But—and I want to be clear about this—parts of our nation’s defense strategy cannot be executed under sequestration, which remains the law of the land and is set to return 212 days from today.” Again, sequestration would only occur should Congress appropriate money above the BCA cap for fiscal year 2016. Congress has already stated it will not do so, therefore the idea that sequestration was set to return is illusory.
Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate level of defense spending. While over half a trillion dollars should be more than enough to defend the American people, it is perfectly legitimate to argue against the Budget Control Act spending limits. But constant references to the return of sequestration or the uncertainty imposed by sequestration are misleading scare tactics that have no place in that debate.