Robert Hale and Michael O’Hanlon know something about defense spending and the fight over the federal budget.
Hale, the Pentagon’s top budget official and chief financial officer for five years, had to work within the sequestration levels set by the US Congress under the 2011 Budget Control Act, so he has firsthand experience in how devastating these automatic cuts have been to military readiness, preparedness, and acquisition.
O’Hanlon, one of the best defense analysts around in Washington, at his perch as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively on the topic even before “sequestration” became a buzz word in policy circles.
So, when both team up for an article stressing unequivocally that “Washington is sleepwalking towards another budgetary showdown that could result in sharp cuts in defense and other government spending,” laymen who don’t study the defense budget for a living tend to listen.
Up on Capitol Hill, their advice has fallen on deaf ears.
Congressional Republicans and the 13 GOP candidates running for president of the United States like to pin most of the country’s defense budget woes on president Obama and his decision, early in his tenure, to defunding for the Department of Defense. (Never mind that the defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates, supported those efforts and thought it was necessary to get rid of overall bloated waste at the Pentagon.) But the fact is everyone in a position of power has responsibility for the sequester being the law of the land. If Republican and Democratic lawmakers weren’t so stubborn during budget negotiations four years ago, the Budget Control Act would not have been enacted.
That didn’t happen: Instead of a deficit-reduction deal where both sides got something they wanted, the super-committee failed to reach an agreement and the blades of the sequester—Arizona senator John McCain referred to it as a “meat-axe”—have been unleashed on Washington.
We are where we are because members of Congress on both sides were not able to enact legislation that split the difference and compromised on entitlement spending and taxes—or at least to the point where the super-committee could present a plan to the House and Senate floors.
Unless Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, speaker of the House John Boehner, senate minority Leader Harry Reid, house minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and president Obama sit in a room and hash out another iteration of the 2013 Murray-Ryan spending relief compromise, sequester level cuts to the US military are back into effect for the fiscal year 2016. The roughly $63 billion in extra discretionary spending that was provided for the Pentagon under the Ryan-Murray package will be out by Oct. 1, 2015, unless Congress passes a short-term continuing resolution, or miraculously pushes forth a bipartisan budget agreement in the next two weeks.
One would think this relapse to full mandatory cuts across the US government would be enough incentive for lawmakers to start working on the spending problem seriously. But, just as the 2011 Budget Control Act that was designed to do, Americans could very well find themselves in a situation where their elected officials miss the boat for a second time. As Republican Pennsylvania representative Charlie Dent, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee has said in the past, “never underestimate our ability to screw up.”
A Ryan-Murray II budget proposal would be the best option, as Hale and O’Hanlon have suggested. The scheme has worked in the past, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t work again. Yet, majority leader Mitch McConnell has found a way: drag out the debate over government spending levels until the very last minute, and thereby force Congress to scramble and pass a short term CR before Sep. 30, 2015 comes and goes. However, with House conservatives now indicating that they will not vote on a short-term CR without a provision defunding Planned Parenthood, even the assumption that Congress will pass a CR is on shaky ground.
It didn’t have to be this way. At the risk of sounding overly partisan or political, the fact of the manner is that Congress could very well have saved itself the pressure of yet another shutdown this October if McConnell agreed to speak with the Senate Democratic leadership on a bipartisan budget blueprint before the August recess. As early as May, Senate Democrats have been calling on the GOP leadership to negotiate on relieving the sequester caps. Senator Reid consistently took to the floor throughout the month of June asking for the same exact thing. Just last month, senator Reid took to The New York Times op-ed page to plead with GOP lawmakers to avoid “another unnecessary, manufactured crisis”—going so far as requesting budget talks during the August recess to ensure that a plan is formally presented and voted on when the chamber comes back to work.
At considerable risk of looking like obstructers, Democrats have blocked every GOP-crafted appropriations bill from coming to the Senate floor—all of this in order to drill home the point to Republican leadership that no spending for the next fiscal year will be authorized until Republicans sit down with Democrats in the same room. At every opportunity, McConnell has spurned the offer, or ignored it altogether.
As the majority party in both the House and the Senate, Republicans have the right to insist on defending their principles. Yet, being the majority party also means exhibiting the leadership qualities that are necessary to allow government to function the way it was supposed to. Pragmatism and the willingness to negotiate are the two qualities that get the job done. Yet by waiting to the last several legislative days before money runs out, and insisting on a regular order process that is guaranteed to be shot down by president Obama when a GOP-authored spending bill eventually reaches his desk, Republicans have created a scenario where a second government shutdown in three years is very real.
If Democrats were engaging in the same behavior, Republicans would have a right to be just as angry. But Americans have voted a Republican-led Congress into power: if the US military is forced to endure automatic spending cuts at sequestration levels, a large part of the blame will be placed on their shoulders.