My dog, Truman, has become a lot smarter since he started spending time in a congressional office. Observant and curious, he has been privy to many of the political and policy issues of the day. In between a walk and a nap, we recently sat down and talked about the budget, its impact on national security and what it takes to get anything done around here.
If you’re disturbed that I have conversations with my dog, you don’t know me very well.
Truman: I heard something about sequestration at the office. What is that?
Me: I know, but let me Google it to give you a good definition.
Truman: You can’t give me a good definition without Google, can you?
Me: Trust me, I’m a professional. (6.7 seconds later) Sequestration was originally a legal term that referred to property being taken into the custody of an agent of a court. In Congress, it describes an automatic spending cut that occurs if members fail to agree on a way to reconcile total government spending that exceeds the limits they set for themselves in the annual budget resolution.
Under sequestration, an amount of money equal to the difference between the cap set in the budget resolution and the amount actually appropriated is “sequestered” by the U.S. Treasury and not handed over to the agencies to which it was originally appropriated by Congress. In theory, every agency has the same percentage of its appropriation withheld in order to take back the excessive spending on an across-the-board basis.
However, Congress has chosen to exempt certain very large programs from the sequestration process (for example, Social Security and certain parts of the defense budget), and the number of exempted programs has tended to increase over time. This means sequestration would have to take back gigantic shares of the budgets of the other programs in order to achieve the total cutbacks required, virtually crippling the activities of the unexempted programs.
Truman: The preamble of the Constitution, which I swore to uphold, provides “for the common defense.” I’m a big national defense dog. How would sequestration impact that stuff?
Me: The defense secretary has argued a deeper sequestration-mandated cut of $500 billion over 10 years – on top of the $500 billion already programmed for the coming 10 years – would devastate the force.
Truman: But our national priorities have changed, haven’t they? The faltering economy itself is a national security threat. Iraq is over. We see the beginning of the end in Afghanistan. If the wars are ending, why do we need to continue spending so much money on defense?
Me: You’re right, the national priorities have changed. The citizenry is wary about spending so much money on other countries’ problems when we have so many of our own here at home.
Some food for thought, little buddy. Iraq is not a done deal; although we no longer have large numbers of forces there, the military advisory mission continues. I venture to say that the several thousand troops we still have in country would argue that the war will continue for them for sometime to come. “The beginning of the end” in Afghanistan is convenient campaign rhetoric for this election year, but we’ll be there for a long time – beyond 2014.
There’s a lot of angst about what the U.S. military should look like after the Afghanistan withdrawal is complete – in an era of fiscal austerity, what the national priorities should be. Ideally, those priorities would be driven by the forecasted environment, and the most likely and most dangerous threats. Read the news to get a taste of those.
There’s no question that spending needs to be re-prioritized, but there’s also no question that the department has borne a disproportionate burden on spending cuts. Despite the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, defense spending is currently 4-5% of the gross domestic product, compared to 6-7% during the Cold War. There are many highly unnecessary programs that are a waste of taxpayer money within the Department of Defense, but there are also things we need to spend money on to keep us on top. Money problems don’t keep potential adversaries from spending on their national defense.
Truman: What’s your point? By the way, I’m hungry.
Me: You’re always hungry. My first point is that fair is fair – the other departments of the federal government need to “kick in” and contribute their share in proportion with that of the biggest spending, the DOD. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are destroying America’s bottom line – $2 out of every $5 in the federal budget goes to these insurance programs.
My second point is that the biggest sponge of DOD money is personnel, pensions and benefits. Force structure – particularly the extra units and people that enabled the War on Terror to be a global one – needs to shrink some. They’re already making that happen. Predictably, pensions are a third rail in the military – nobody is going to take away what I earned after 20+ years at war, training in the rain, sleeping in mud and spending God knows how much time away from my family. I don’t argue with the “earning” part of that assertion, but in the judgment of folks who are far smarter than me, letting someone collect a sizable pension and then allowing him or her leave the military with two decades’ worth of skills (often to launch a second career in defense contracting) does not make any sense. Some have argued to allow retirement at 25 years vice 20 in an effort to retain the skills of a colonel/lieutenant colonel or a senior enlisted service member. There is also a big cost related to TriCare, which provides civilian health benefits for military personnel, military retirees and their dependents. A recent suggestion to raise TriCare fees among retirees and beneficiary co-pays on prescriptions filled off-based was called “draconian” by members and fails to “keep faith” with military members and their families.
My third point is that everybody is watching this train wreck happen in slow motion. Both sides of the aisle have dug in their heels on their pet issues. The absolute refusal to reduce entitlement spending and raise taxes makes the current model unsustainable.
I elect a person based on the shocking premise of his or her ability to lead, not placate the masses. On one hand we have the champions of the welfare state, who are mortgaging our future because of a misguided sense of loyalty to a powerful part of the electorate that made the personal choices that created their current predicaments. On the other hand we have a movement that wants to hoard every dime but brands as “socialist” any sacrifice to help the Republic survive. When is the adult conversation going to take place? Who has a good solution to put on the table?
Truman: Not me. I’m sleepy. Let’s play in an hour.