Sequestration, DoD, and the Federal-Deficit Sweet Spot

A U.S. national debt clock is seen at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last August. (Harry E. Walker/MCT/via Getty Images)

For the Pentagon and U.S. defense sector, being so tethered to Washington’s broader debate about spending and the federal deficit has become something of a Catch-22.

That tethering — because politicians could not agree on how to replace a $500 billion cut to planned Defense Department spending — essentially caused the so-called sequestration cuts to be triggered March 1. Yet, there is no sense — for now, at least — on Capitol Hill that anything shy of a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that brings some finality to the deficit/spending debate will be offered to turn them off.

President Obama and some Senate Republicans are trying to lay the foundation for such a big fiscal deal.

Some Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill want to turn off the Pentagon cuts.

Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Defense subcommittee, told Defense News last week: “I think the president is worried about the effect on defense, too.”

Enter House Republicans, many of whom want to totally wipe out the federal debt, which is approaching $17 trillion. Meaning take it to zero. In a decade. And they want to do that mostly though more deep federal spending cuts.

The deficit has become the leading issue for congressional Republicans, a growing number of which have come to Washington since 2010 to slash federal spending and shrink the government. Here’s a taste of their thinking, from the cover story of the today’s print issue of Defense News:

“For the debt the Republic of Texas accumulated, we would have continued as an independent nation,” Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said March 5 on the House floor. “That debt caused a collapse of the Republic of Texas, and House conservatives are deeply concerned that these debts and deficits will ultimately crush the United States of America just as it did the Republic of Texas.”

For others, it’s a moral issue.

“We need to make tough, smart choices and reduce spending now so that we don’t hand our children the most regressive tax there is — an immoral national debt approaching $17 trillion,” said Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. “There is no reason and should be no reason why both sides can’t agree on cutting $85 billion,” he said, referring to the 2013 tranche of the total sequestration cuts.

Congressional Democrats and Obama often talk about passing a grand-bargain deal — built on spending cuts, entitlement reforms and new revenue through closing corporate tax loopholes — that will produce  “manageable debt levels.”

So perhaps the best-case scenario for defense is a bipartisan consensus to hit a middle-ground target on the size of the deficit. The House GOP’s starting number is zero.

What about the White House’s figure? White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during his Monday briefing that Obama’s goal is “a rate of debt-to-GDP that is less than 3 percent.”

Carney then showed the White House and House Republicans remain miles apart on agreeing to the kind of big deal that might void the Pentagon sequester cuts: “The goal should not be deficit reduction for deficit reduction’s sake.”

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett