DeM Banter: this going to be sporty…still wondering if there will be any “strategy” adjustments as ops normal seem unlikely to be able to continue. Appears the 1970s are repeating….Saturday Night Fever anyone?
January 19, 2013
By telling defense officials not to specify sequestration cuts, the White House put them in a terrible position.
Over the past year, even as fiscal-cliff anxiety mounted, the White House had a message for every federal agency: Don’t plan for the sequester. The administration didn’t want a debate over how it should trim spending to distract from the debate about whether lawmakers would force it to do so. Budget offices across the government set the question aside.
At the time, Republicans said this was ludicrous. They were especially incensed about the failure to plot out defense cuts, which, done poorly, could compromise national security. In August, for instance, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon grumbled that a concrete plan would give the Pentagon time to make safer reductions and build political will for compromise, because people would see how $500 billion in cuts would affect their jobs and districts. At the witness table, Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, refused to bite. Congress should reduce the deficit and end the sequester, he insisted, not “spend time moving around rocks at the bottom of the cliff to make for a less painful landing.”
Republicans were right. Here we are with less than two months before sequestration, which more and more members of Congress now say they might support. The Pentagon should have planned for this. By failing to do so, it missed a chance to bargain with members for flexibility to make reductions, and it lost a major political bargaining chip.
Now the Defense Department appears to be scrambling. Last week, it imposed a civilian hiring freeze, curtailed training, and canceled maintenance for ships. It ordered each armed service to provide detailed plans for sequestration within weeks. “They went from the guidance that said, ‘Don’t even think about planning’ to a new realization: ‘Why are we so far behind?’ ” says David Berteau, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Had officials broadcast the details earlier—including a possible furlough of virtually all 800,000 Defense Department civilians—they could have induced a little more urgency in lawmakers, he says.
Not that the Pentagon has been silent. Under White House orders not to plan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spent a year calling the cut a “doomsday” that would result in “a brigade without bullets.” On top of the $450 billion the department already agreed to trim, Panetta has said, sequestration would be “like shooting ourselves in the head.” But that alarmism wasn’t helpful, says William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy. Panetta seemed like he was trying to head off any additional defense cuts—an increasingly unrealistic prospect. Instead, officials should have done a better job explaining how sequestration would force them to cut uniformly, without regard to how important a particular program was, Hartung says.
Currently, the Pentagon is forced to take 9 percent from nearly every line item in its budget—from F-35 jets to Army recruiting. But Congress could have given the Pentagon a budget cap instead: In this scenario, the department would have some flexibility to choose whether it wanted to spend more on training, weapons, or commissaries, as long as the cuts added up. “Instead of screaming from the rooftops about how damaging it was going to be, maybe they could have gotten better tools to manage their cutbacks,” Hartung says.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. The White House did not want agencies to waste time planning unlikely cuts—or to panic workers during an election season. But if hundreds of thousands of workers had received notices that they could be laid off, they would have constituted a formidable pressure group on Capitol Hill. Now, even Panetta worries that lawmakers won’t care enough about this fiscal year’s $45 billion in defense cuts to lift the automatic reductions in domestic spending, too. They may have made their peace with austerity. “I thought last year that sequestration was so nuts that there wasn’t a chance that it would happen,” Panetta told reporters last week. “This issue may now be in a very difficult place, in terms of [members’] willingness to confront what needs to be done to de-trigger sequester.”
The Pentagon quietly began limited internal planning for sequestration, under direction from OMB, in December. At this point, Panetta said last week, “we simply cannot sit back now and not be prepared for the worst.”
The Pentagon would do well to take Republicans’ advice: Determine, quickly, how many civilians would need to be furloughed and alert them. Inform industry about specific cutbacks so that they too can issue warnings about layoffs. Allowing the workers and contractors to panic is the last ammunition the Pentagon has to get Congress to compromise or change the law. Specificity now may be too little, too late, but, as Berteau says, “it would certainly make it hard to ignore that it’s going to happen.”