With automatic spending cuts across government — half from the Pentagon — now a near certainty, Congress and the administration must move quickly to empower affected departments to manage what’s left, now and for the future.
Military leaders have long complained that automatic cuts would limit their flexibility and devastate capabilities. With military personnel and ongoing programs exempt from cuts, leaders unveiled nightmarish plans to save $46 billion over six months on the backs of civilians and operations in anticipation of a 2014 budget in October.
Some saw these plans as tailored specifically for maximum political shock value, designed to compel lawmakers to avert sequestration and finally enact a 2013 defense budget. But while military leaders are trying to scare lawmakers into averting sequestration, they actually had little wiggle room.
Given they have little visibility on future budgets, they targeted cuts they can recover from — training, operations and civilian pay — while shielding ongoing programs and resources that, if killed now, may be impossible to reconstitute in the future.
America finds itself on the brink of sequestration because enough Republicans are willing to cut defense to delay additional taxes, joining Democrats who are likewise willing to cut defense in order to protect entitlement programs like Medicare.
That neither side is willing to protect defense, which experienced 80 percent real spending growth over the past decade, should surprise no one.
Compounding problems is the current continuing resolution that funds the government up until March 27. Regardless of whether sequestration happens, Congress has to agree on either a budget for the rest of the year or another continuing resolution. Failure to do that will shut down government operations.
Indeed, the services have already started jockeying for the funding battle that follows, maneuvering in the hope that they can box in Chuck Hagel once he finally wins confirmation in the Senate, as expected.
Like a Greek tragedy, all the protagonists in this drama bear a measure of blame.
Republicans spawned this crisis in 2011 by publicly toying with the notion of pushing the nation into default, causing a panic in financial markets that, in turn, led to the adoption of the 2011 Budget Control Act that specified nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years.
Democrats, having forced the GOP to bend on tax hikes, have kept the crisis hot by insisting on more tax increases as part of the solution. But that has only steeled the Republicans’ resolve.
Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to bend. The Senate and the administration should yield on overdue entitlement reforms as part of a truly balanced approach to deficit reduction.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, must understand that additional defense cuts are not only coming, but necessary. Military leaders must shift from lobbying against the inevitable to planning smartly for the future. In doing so, they have to build down to a sustainable ready force, not a large and hollow one. There are already worrying signs that the services — again — are shielding tail at the expense of tooth.
As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ends his long and distinguished career, it remains unclear what his DoD legacy will be. Easing up on the iron grip of Robert Gates, Uncle Leon, as Panetta came to be known, gave military leaders unprecedented license to lobby against sequestration, exposing himself to legitimate criticism that he ceded too much authority.
Hagel won’t be so gentle. If confirmed, he must move quickly to rein in the services and what unmoved lawmakers see as their scare tactics over budget cuts and forge them into a unified team for what will be a long, hard period of austerity.
Congress, meanwhile, must provide the Pentagon clear guidance and budget targets to allow strategic planning, while cutting unnecessary functions and the staffs that go with them, reforming requirements, acquisition, pay, personnel and benefits and driving incessant innovation to yield maximum readiness and capability.