‘Widespread Pain’ of the Sequester Not So Draconian

by , February 20, 2013

Recently, The New York Times ran an alarmist editorial about the "widespread pain" that would be inflicted on the American government and people by the budget "sequester." If no legislative action is taken, the sequester will make across the board budget cuts (some exceptions exist, such as Social Security and pay for enlisted military personnel) of $85 billion during the last seven months of this fiscal year. Some have called such cuts "draconian," but they are hardly so—for example, defense programs would be cut by only 8 percent.

However, budget cuts in Washington are rarely budget cuts at all, and this reduction is no exception. In fact, the defense budget will continue to rise; it’s just that it’s not rising as fast as the Department of Defense’s ambitious plan envisioned. So curiously, in the nation’s capital, budgets that don’t rise as fast as agencies would like are deemed as having experienced cuts. In fact, even if the sequester takes effect on March 1, defense spending will still exceed the total in 2007–during the massive defense spending rise during the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2009.

Government entities, including security agencies, are experts at the Washington budget game and practice the well-known "Firemen First" principle. When agencies smell budget cuts in the air, they threaten to cut their most essential, popular, or politically defensible programs first—for example, money for fighting fires—to dissuade politicians from cutting their budgets. The military is no exception.

The Navy proclaims that because of the sequester, it will need to cut operations and maintenance funds, rendering two aircraft carrier battle groups not deployable at their scheduled times, thereby causing two carrier groups already deployed to remain on station overseas indefinitely. The Navy also threatens to shut down four carrier air wings. After 90 days, says the service, the wings’ aviators will lose their certification and be expensive to retrain.

The Air Force tells us that two-thirds of their active-duty combat units will need to curtail training on their home bases and by July will be unable to carry out their missions. Continuous bomber flights outside the Afghan war will be reduced.

The Army claims that it will be forced to reduce training for 80 percent of ground forces, and by the end of the year, two-thirds of its brigade combat teams will fall below acceptable levels of combat readiness.

The Homeland Security Department insists that the Coast Guard will have to cut operations, including drug interdiction, by 25 percent and that reductions in airport security and Customs agents will result in long passenger lines.

Of course, instead of cutting training and money for needed operations and maintenance, these agencies should first cut spending on unneeded weapons or equipment, excessive personnel benefits (including health care), and padded ranks of top executives (including generals).

Even more important, cutting out entire unneeded missions or forces would also allow the cutting of training and operations and maintenance funds without ill effects on U.S. security. For example, why not cut the number of Navy air wings, Air Force fighter and bomber wings, and Army brigade combat teams. The Coast Guard could cut out useless drug interdiction missions altogether, as could the other military services. Instead of making travelers wait in longer lines, perhaps the Transportation Safety Administration could make do with fewer security people if they lightened up on the excessively ridiculous security at airports.

Instead of scoping down missions or force requirements in times of budget austerity, the security agencies seem to be doing the opposite. Up until recently, the United States required only one carrier battle group to keep its finger on Persian Gulf oil supplies; a second carrier group is now apparently needed to defend oil that doesn’t need defending (private and government-owned companies around the world have tremendous monetary incentives to sell oil into a truly global petroleum market).

Previously, the United States never paid much attention to Africa. Now it is beefing up its military presence there to fight terrorists and protect West African oil. Yet U.S. military interventions in Yemen (from a base in Africa), Somalia, and Libya have simply created more terrorists, and West African oil doesn’t need guarding anymore than any other petroleum supplies do. Even if these missions were desirable, to perform them, the U.S. military should reduce missions, bases, and forces in other areas of the world—for example, Europe, South Korea, and Japan—but has not done so.

Thus, cutting (OK, reducing the rate of increase of) defense spending shouldn’t really affect the nation’s "defense" at all. The U.S. military is now a huge offensive force, designed to project power to secure an informal globe-girdling empire. Using the criterion of original intent, this force is likely even unconstitutional, because the U.S. Constitution allows the government only to "provide for the common defence." In reality, the minor defense cuts of the sequester should only be a down payment on the security spending reductions needed to convert an offensively oriented empire into a defensively oriented republic.

Read more by Ivan Eland