Cutting Through the Rhetoric on Defense Sequestration

Cutting Through the Rhetoric on Defense Sequestration

The prospect of $500 billion in cuts to the U.S. defense budget from 2013-2021 has Washington in a panic. In unveiling a barely updated military strategy yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repeated his warning that such cuts would lead to a “demoralized and hollow force.” One of his deputies has called the cuts the equivalent of “self-castration.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently warned that the cuts will “destroy” the Department of Defense.

We should not allow those claims to scare us into letting the Pentagon off the hook. The cuts, which come courtesy of the deficit deal -- the Budget Control Act -- passed by the U.S. Congress last summer, would indispose the Pentagon, not destroy it. And budget negotiations next year are likely to largely prevent the cuts from occurring at all. That’s too bad, since the Pentagon budget could safely lose at least that amount if cuts are made intelligently.

The Budget Control Act created the bipartisan supercommittee tasked with finding savings of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, which Congress was then to enact by the end of 2012. Because the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, the act’s built-in trigger imposes an alternative path to those savings: budget caps enforced by the elimination -- “sequestration” in budgetspeak -- of any spending above the sought-after mark. Half of those savings are to come from defense spending. Once adjusted for lowered interest payments on debt, as the law instructs, that amounts to an annual hit of about $54.7 billion relative to current administration plans.

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