Sequestration: Getting Our Priorities Straight
Lobbyists for military contractors are swarming all over Capitol Hill these days in a frenzy to stave off automatic budget cuts as part of the second wave of sequestration, due in January. If the cuts take effect, the Defense Department will not get its $50 billion increase for next year and will have to make do with a mere $475 billion.
Also included in the sequestration are across-the-board cuts to a comprehensive cross section of government agencies and departments, which, if they go through, could devastate government-funded programs and services ordinary people rely on.
With both major parties unhappy about the sequestration but agreed on reducing spending, the billion dollar question is which aspect of government should we cut? The military budget or just everything else? It is, after all, a matter of priorities.
To understand the current political mess, I asked Jo Comerford, the executive director of the National Priorities Project, to explain the complex origins of the obscurely named sequestration. According to Comerford, the political tussle that resulted in the 2011 Budget Control Act was “all about a battle over debt and deficit, debt being the aggregate number — so every annual deficit combined — and deficit being the gap between what we think we can bring in as a nation in terms of revenue and what we’re going to spend.” Comerford continued, “At that point, in August 2011, Congress and some members of the media were disproportionately focused on our nation’s debt. It was the center of the austerity uprising in the nation.”
That crusade yielded the Budget Control Act, which stipulated that in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, government spending would have to be reduced by about $917 billion over 10 years. A supercommittee of members of Congress was charged with designing the details of the cuts, and if they failed to come to agreement, the newly passed law would trigger a harsh lopping off of both defense and non-defense discretionary spending in roughly equal measure.
In a reflection of the stark political polarization afflicting Capitol Hill, the supercommittee failed, and the sledgehammer of the “fail-safe” sequestration cuts began to fall. This means that every year, for 10 years, there will be roughly $85 billion-$90 billion in automatic spending cuts from the discretionary budget split between defense and non-defense budgets. The first round went into effect in March and the second round is expected in January.
Advocates of military spending are up in arms, so to speak, over the cuts. But putting the reductions into a broader perspective is a useful exercise. President Obama’s 2014 Discretionary Spending Budget allocates 56.5 percent of our tax dollars to military spending. Meanwhile, the remaining 43.5 percent of the budget includes education, health care, veterans benefits, housing, international affairs, energy, the environment, food and agriculture, transportation and labor, each of which account for only single-digit percentages of the whole pie.
Sequestration, according to Comerford, “does not cut evenly. The Defense ‘bucket’ is so much larger that a cut from that is disproportionately more shallow than a cut from say education.” Conversely, lopping off tens of billions of dollars from the nonmilitary budget levies disproportionately larger cuts to all discretionary spending programs on which Americans rely.
Facing an annual military budget cut of about $50 billion merely forces the Pentagon to prioritize and reorganize spending within an already bloated budget. It may mean, for example, that private military contractors that have been enjoying public subsidies for decades may have to make do with a smaller profit margin.
But the defense industry does not see it that way. Comerford echoed contractors’ fear of sequestration, saying, “Military lobbyists have now for quite some time said that the kind of spending cuts now predicted through sequestration, should it continue, would be terrible for their industry.” For years, the standard economic justification for spending such a big chunk of our national budget on the military has been that it creates jobs.
Comerford blasted that claim, saying, “Military jobs and/or spending in the Pentagon sector is the least effective way when compared with health care, transportation, environment and even tax breaks to create jobs in the nation by the simple fact that military jobs are more expensive than other sectors. So defense analysts and lobbyists who tout the jobs argument are actually missing that huge piece of the puzzle, which is, if you really care about jobs and you want federal investment to boost jobs then we have to go to green energy or transportation or health care — some of the fastest growing, highly employable sectors with so many more commensurate jobs for that same federal dollar than military. That’s just a fact from study after study!” Comerford cited a University of Massachusetts study as one among many that proves her point.Realizing that the jobs argument does not have as much political impact these days, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that the cuts are a threat to “military readiness,” even though the U.S. has wound down one war in Iraq and is readying itself to wind down another war in Afghanistan. Still, defense hawks like Republican Congressman Buck McKeon want to hold all military engagements hostage to the sequester. McKeon had claimed that in order for the U.S. to be involved militarily in Syria this fall, it could not tolerate any sequester cuts to the military. (For anti-war advocates, this argument is as good a reason as any to slash tens of billions of dollars of the military budget each year.)
But even cutting half a trillion dollars over a decade from the U.S. military will not strip it down to bare bones. In fact, adjusted for inflation, historic drawdowns after various major conflicts such as Vietnam and the Cold War were even more dramatic than what the current slew of cuts would result in.
Comerford argued that the military lobby “frankly should be worried” because “you and I, through our federal income and payroll taxes, pay 80 percent of the nation’s bills. We should get to say what is a wise expenditure.” To that end, she argued we should “allow our military to really reinvent itself and not be locked in these old god-forsaken Cold War paradigms that just simply cost a lot of money without doing a whole lot of good.”
Comerford went further, suggesting we change our spending priorities: “What our nation has had since the 1980s is a failure of imagination, a failure of our ability as a nation to invest in sectors other than defense and the Pentagon. In fact, if we simply pause for a moment and look at what else could be achieved should we turn those federal dollars someplace else, it’s staggering the kind of return on investment we might get.”
In 2011, the U.S. “spent more on its military than the next 13 nations combined,” according to The Washington Post. Yet, on crucial programs like public education, the U.S. spends far less than most countries.
Even within the military, instead of decreasing expenses on drones, bombs and other machines of death and destruction, the budget cuts are being translated into reducing the number of troops by tens of thousands. Comerford argued that it was important to transition these troops into civilian life, saying, “We should all care about the women and men in the armed services and in the defense industry who are employed. And we should actually have a plan to transition the economy where these folks aren’t just tossed into unemployment. Because that would be a ridiculous piece of business causing less tax revenue and a continued protracted economic crisis.”
But if cuts to the military could actually be a good thing for the economy, what effect will the accompanying sequestration reductions have on the abundance of crucial nonmilitary programs in the discretionary budget?
Comerford couldn’t stress enough the devastation that could result over the years if sequestration goes through, saying, “Just take a breath and think about every single thing we care about, truly. It sounds hyperbolic on my part but it is not. Think about clean air, clean water, safe food, education, the IT infrastructure, the road infrastructure. … Think about cities, think about job retraining, scientific research, innovation, the arts — the list could just go on. The federal budget as a mechanism touches every single one of us really every second of every day.”
If federal spending cuts are what Congress unequivocally wants, then as a nation we would be better served trimming off billions from the military budget and leaving everything else alone. Instead of allowing the sequestration plan to cut spending equally from discretionary military and nonmilitary budgets, Comerford says, “We need a plan to significantly reduce Pentagon spending and restore the unemployment rate and to put Americans on a sounder path toward security.” But by security, Comerford doesn’t mean “national security.” She means “educational security, economic security and climate security.”