U.S. Is Hurtling Toward Sequestration and No One Seems to Care

U.S. Is Hurtling Toward Sequestration and No One Seems to Care
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
U.S. Is Hurtling Toward Sequestration and No One Seems to Care
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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The threat of sequestration looms over the nation, but alarm bells are not yet ringing in Washington. Unless Congress and the White House take action, across-the-board cuts will hit the military and the rest of the federal government in January 2020. Negotiations have begun on a two-year spending deal to avert more than $300 billion of spending reductions imposed by the Budget Control Act, but no progress has been made. The president himself recently scorned the idea of a budget deal, tweeting that a spending deal is “not happening!” 

The 2020 sequester would be twice as large as the one in 2013, from which military readiness has still not recovered. As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis noted, “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration.” A 2020 sequester of defense spending would essentially reverse all the readiness gains achieved in 2018 and 2019. According to Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, it would represent “the undoing of the National Defense Strategy.” The sequester would cut $20 billion from the Navy and $29 billion from the Air Force, cause the Marine Corps to “stall,” and halt or disrupt 118 Army programs. According to Gen. Mark Milley, nominated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a 2020 sequester would “place the United States of America at great risk.” 

Every passing day in which momentum is not created toward a deal instead adds to the attractiveness of blaming the other party for failing to achieve one. Negotiations for the last deal began in June 2017 and ended in late March 2018. Because of the presidential campaign and the January 2020 deadline, today’s timeline is much shorter, and yet both sides believe waiting until the bitter end supposedly enhances their leverage.

Three factors cloud the outlook for a new two-year spending deal. Neither Republicans nor Democrats possess a coherent strategy for negotiating a spending deal or raising the debt ceiling. Both sides have relied on a take-no-prisoners approach during negotiations. And an array of contentious secondary issues has complicated the legislative process. 

Both Democrats and Republicans suffer from internal divisions in negotiating a spending cap deal. In April, after progressives demanded more spending for domestic priorities, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (pictured) pulled his proposed outline of a spending deal from floor consideration. While Yarmuth’s legislation failed, it illuminated a potential path to reach an agreement. The failure showed that Democrats acting alone cannot pass a spending deal in the House. Some amount of offsets or pay-fors will be required to lure conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to vote for the deal. 

However, while White House officials mock Yarmuth’s failure, their own approach to the negotiations remains baffling. They are not on the same page as congressional Republicans, who have a reasonable idea of what a spending agreement might look like, according to the frequent comments of their leadership and key committee chairs. By contrast, the White House’s dead-on-arrival budget proposal revealed that the administration does not even want a deal. Currently, the White House favors a full-year continuing resolution, which would trigger sequestration in 2020. 

In addition to their internal divisions, both parties appear unwilling to compromise. The bitter disagreement between the president and House Democrats over border wall funding resulted in the nation’s longest (partial) government shutdown. Discussions of a normally uncontroversial disaster aid bill remain stalled, due to disagreements over the amount of relief for Puerto Rico and flood-affected Midwestern states. 

There are many other nasty fights between Congress and the White House that threaten to hamper cooperation on a spending deal. Democrats remain fundamentally opposed to the administration’s plan to use military construction funding for the wall, to launder other defense spending for border purposes, and to the request for a new $4.5 billion supplemental border funding package. The White House’s proposed replacement for NAFTA remains stalled among both Republicans and Democrats, and the prospects for an infrastructure deal appear unlikely. All this gridlock takes place amid an intractable constitutional standoff between the White House and House Democrats that could end in impeachment proceedings. 

These factors do not bode well for the passage of a deal to avoid sequestration in January 2020. White House officials and congressional leaders must not approach this matter with the nonchalance that characterized previous budget negotiations. Given that the White House is willing to flirt with sequestration and gamble with the effectiveness of the U.S. military and federal government, Congress must assume the lead and execute a spending deal as soon as possible.

Rick Berger is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on the defense budget. Previously, he was a professional staff member at the Senate Budget Committee where he worked on defense, foreign affairs, and veteran issues.

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