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POLITICO: Sequester's dire effect on our security

Washington, July 27, 2012

This article first appeared in Politico on 7/26/12

There are a variety of opinions about the appropriate level of defense spending in the years ahead.  Regardless of those differences, however, anyone who has examined the consequences of sequestration should agree that it would do severe damage to our security and must be stopped.

The across-the-board cuts in every “program, project, or activity” were meant to be an unacceptable threat, which no one would allow to occur.  The specter of deep, mindless cuts in every defense program—regardless of its priority—was intended to ensure that some agreement would be found to reduce the deficit by a similar amount.  And yet that nightmare threat that was never supposed to happen is coming closer to being reality.

A little perspective is in order.  Defense spending, including the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons complex within the Department of Energy, makes up 19 percent of current federal budget.  But under sequestration, that 19 percent of the budget will absorb 50 percent of the total budget cuts.

It gets worse.  Under the law, the President has the authority to exempt defense personnel costs, things like military salaries and medical care, from being reduced by sequestration.  Personnel costs make up close to a fourth of military spending.  Assuming that the President does not want to be responsible for cutting the pay of service members, that means that 50 percent of the spending cuts will be inflicted on only 15 percent of the federal budget.

As mentioned, each “program, project, and activity” within that 15 percent of the budget must be cut by an equal percentage, regardless of its merits.  There is no flexibility.  Estimates are that the cuts will be in the neighborhood of 10 percent in the first year alone, although Congress is trying to get more specifics out of the Administration.  And those cuts will be implemented well into the fiscal year, requiring larger reductions.

What would be the results of such cuts?  With reductions falling disproportionately on procurement, research, and readiness accounts, there is a good chance that major weapon acquisitions would be halted or curtailed.  

Of course, the taxpayers have already invested substantial amounts to ensure that our military has the best weapons and equipment possible.  Having to walk away from reaping the full benefits of those investments is wasteful and could mean our troops are not as well protected or equipped as they could be.  Services with higher personnel costs, such as the Army and Marines, will see their procurement programs cut even more. 

Cuts in research take away our security in the future.  The budget decisions made today determine what sort of military we will have to confront the unexpected threats ahead.  Congress has received testimony this year that the number and complexity of national security threats facing our nation is as great as it has ever been.  Failing to keep up with the evolving security threats increases the danger to our nation and to the safety of our people.

Even if personnel accounts are exempted, our people will be affected.  Less money to equip and maintain troops will require involuntary separations.  Much of the training and experience that has come at such a high price will be lost.

Spending reductions will also have economic consequences.  We should not spend money on defense in order to create jobs.  But we should also be aware of the effects on jobs of such significant cuts.  Studies have found that sequestration would result in job losses ranging from 1 to 2 million jobs and would reduce our growth in our economy by about 1 percent of GDP.

Those economic consequences are already starting to kick in.  Companies doing business with the Department of Defense must plan ahead, and under the current law, they must plan for cuts.  In fact, the law requires many employees to send out notices of potential layoffs, and those notices will hit the mailboxes just before the November election.

The House has acted earlier this year to prevent sequestration by substituting other spending reductions for the cuts to defense.  But time is growing short.   Even if Congress acts to stop sequestration late this year before it takes affect in January 2013, it may be too late for many jobholders.  The damage to our economy and to our defense industrial base will have been done.

Finally, we have widespread agreement in this country that our mounting debt threatens our future.  We have to examine every dollar of federal spending to ensure that it is spent effectively and efficiently – and that includes the defense budget.  But, defense budgets are already going down (as opposed to the biggest category of federal spending, entitlements).  And no manager can make rational decisions with the arbitrary reductions associated with sequestration.  Even during a political campaign, we have to find a way to put the country’s security first.

Rep. Mac Thornberry serves as the Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.