Years of top-ranking military leaders’ warnings, and verbal nods of agreements among Republican and Democratic leaders alike have failed to do what many say is needed: Repeal a federal budget sequester that has damaged the military.
President Donald Trump was the latest, calling in his State of the Union address Tuesday to “end the dangerous defense sequester” to “fully fund” the military as the nation faces challenges from rogue regimes, terrorist groups, rivals China and Russia and aims to rebuild the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Ending the sequester is one of the few things President Trump and former President Barack Obama agree on. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton even called for an end to the sequester during the election.
Still, the sequester remains not only in place, but a fully funded defense budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 remains unresolved even as a temporary stopgap funding measure — the fourth since September — is set the expire Thursday.
When lawmakers failed to immediately extend another temporary funding measure last month, known as a continuing resolution, a three-day partial federal government shutdown sent 8,600 civil service workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base home for one day.
Military and congressional leaders have said the longer the Defense Department budget is delayed, the bigger the impact in areas like starting new programs and awarding contracts.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said it’s “inescapable” another temporary funding extension will be needed this week. But he expected negotiations with the Senate to reach a final budget deal were gaining traction. The House voted for a third time last week to fully fund the defense budget, Turner’s office noted.
“It’s the threat of shutdown or a threat of furlough that can be very damaging even if the threat does not occur,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs. “Employees are pulled off their jobs to plan for a shutdown. It’s a complete waste of money.”
In 2013, the last time sequestration was triggered, furloughs of thousands of civil service workers swept through Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and immediate spending cuts darkened hallways and stopped work at some sites.
“It’s hard to quantify the impact of sequestration and of furlough, but it’s many, many hours of lost time through furlough, and then you definitely cannot quantify the lost trust” with employees, said retired Col. Cassie B. Barlow, who was the base commander at the time.
The consequences of sequestration to the Air Force have meant reduced readiness, contributed to a pilot shortage and not enough dollars to pay for a “modernization bow wave” coming in the next several years in the Air Force, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
“Digging out is always more expensive than steadily building up, too, which adds further costs to services when they attempt to start new programs after the loss of engineering or design talent; add capacity at depots and labs after layoffs or furloughs; or, renegotiate contracts after the government customer failed to stick to its mandated schedule due to political and therefore budget instability,” she said in an email.
Despite the impact, reaching a deal to abolish the sequester remains elusive.
“All parties agree it should be done, which is precisely why it becomes the ‘solution’ around which all other debates attempt to get litigated,” Eaglen said.
“Congress has voted overwhelmingly in support of just that – lifting the sequester – and not only increasing defense, but increasing it above the president’s own levels,” she added in an email. “So that’s not the issue. It’s that defense becomes like a snowball or Christmas tree to then debate non-defense discretionary cuts,” such as children’s health care and the fate of people who came to the United States as undocumented children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, among other issues.
Congress has lifted the spending caps previously, and Eaglen expected it would again “in a mini-budget deal spanning two years.”
Concern over wasteful spending
Dan Grazier, a Project On Government Oversight defense fellow in Washington, D.C, said an audit of Pentagon spending is needed before more money is spent on expensive weapon systems or wasteful projects.
“What needs to happen is the Pentagon needs to figure out how to spend the money it is given first before we ever consider raising Pentagon spending,” he said.
He noted a Defense Business Board study in 2015 that claimed $125 billion in wasteful spending within the Defense Department could be eliminated over five years. More will be found as the Pentagon completes the long-expected audit of where and on what it’s spending billions of dollars, he said.
“That’s really the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We’re going to find all kinds of things out over the next year or so as the first audit goes through.”
The Defense Department “is a big organization spread all over the world,” the former Marine officer added. “There are a lot of inefficiencies built into it.”
The ‘straight jacket’ of sequestration
Congressional leaders and the White House agreed to automatic, across-the-board defense cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 to reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion, according to The Washington Post.
As part of the deal, the sequester, or automatic budget cuts, was to impose $1.2 trillion in reductions over nine years beginning in 2013, split equally on defense and discretionary domestic spending.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan defense think tank in Washington, D.C., noted in 2016 that past budget deals and the use of a loophole in additional wartime funding has kept the defense budget to where it would have been without the spending limits.
“The area of … visible concern is the straight jacket which is placed on Congress by the act and the threat of furloughs and unplanned cuts if sequestration should take place,” Gessel said. “There’s a little bit of irony that a budget bill which sets budget levels is setting budget uncertainty.
“If the caps were lifted, it would allow breathing room for Wright-Patt and other military bases to better plan their future and there would be more certainty about their budgets and more certainty about continuing without the interruption of furloughs, sequestration and shutdowns,” he said.
Boosting defense spending
Boosting defense spending by large amounts, as defense hawks in Congress favor, will be difficult because of the return of projected trillion-dollar deficits every year beginning in 2019, said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Virginia.
A recently touted federal tax cut won’t help the military rebuild, he said.
“Borrowing a trillion dollars per year might be justifiable in a crisis, but doing so during an economic boom when the nation is at peace is dangerous,” he said in an email. “If high interest rates return, the cost of carrying a $20 trillion national debt will wreck the budget.
“There’s no question sequestration has harmed the military,” he added. “The Army can’t afford to modernize its weapons, and the mission-capable rates of naval aircraft are abysmally low.
“But President Trump gave away the money needed to fix these problems in his tax cut, and Congress will rebel against raising federal borrowing to a level that would make the military whole.” Thompson said.
Congressman Turner, chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, said it is good to hear President Trump’s call to end sequestration “because it’s legislative malpractice that it continues to cut its way through our military.”
While Congress has reached temporary spending deals to offset sequestration over several years, it remains law and makes it difficult to fund the military, he said.
Turner blamed the Obama administration for the Budget Control Act, which he said was “an ill-conceived plan” to control spending and get a budget deal.
“The punishment was if cuts to entitlement programs were not found that then defense and other programs would suffer,” he said. “The mechanism was left in place in the hopes that Congress would still come to a budget deal overall that would go just beyond defense spending and domestic spending, but that’s been elusive.
“As a result, defense has paid the price where we’ve seen furloughs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and cuts to our military capability with (Defense) Secretary (James) Mattis saying that sequestration has done more damage to our military than any of our adversaries could.”
By the Numbers
Congress continues to debate funding the military in fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1 without a fully funded budget in place. Here’s a look at a few key figures:
1.3 million — Number of U.S. active-duty service members
800,000: Reserve and National Guard members
About 7,500: Number of active-duty and reserve service members at Wright-Patterson
$114 billion: Air Force fiscal year 2017 budget if spending caps were in effect under sequestration
$123.9 billion: Actual Air Force FY17 budget with additional appropriations
Four: Number of short-term funding measures since September
SOURCES: Department of Defense, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, U.S. Air Force