As the deadline for the sequester draws near — it is set to go into effect on March 1 — the White House and congressional Democrats are sounding the alarm about the impact the $1.2 trillion in cuts will have on domestic discretionary-spending programs while largely ignoring their effect on the defense budget.
Democrats appear genuinely alarmed about what’s going to happen to domestic programs, but “strangely less concerned about what’s going to happen to the Department of Defense,” communications director of the House Armed Services Committee, Claude Chafin, tells National Review Online. He notes that the Defense Department makes up only 18 percent of federal spending but has absorbed half of the trillion-dollar cut in the Budget Control Act of 2011. “I wish they would show a little bit more leadership in talking about what’s going to happen with the Department of Defense.”
Thus far, that appears unlikely. The White House on Friday released a fact sheet informing Americans of the parade of — potentially deadly — horrors that will result if the sequester goes into effect. None of them, however, relate to the national defense. The fact sheet warns that women and children will lose vital nutritional assistance, and if job-safety inspectors are furloughed, we may see “an increase in worker fatality and injury rates.” White House press secretary Jay Carney followed with a warning that the country will become “more vulnerable to public health risks due to foodborne illnesses when the Food and Drug Administration is forced to cut back on food inspections.”
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama sounded many of the same notes, calling the cuts “sudden” and “arbitrary,” and arguing that they would “devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research.”
Chafin, noting that the White House proposal for resolving the issue calls for additional tax increases but does not offer “any meaningful relief from sequester-level cuts” to defense spending, urges the administration to turn its attention to the Pentagon. The plan currently backed by the president, he argues, “leads you to a hollow horse” as far as the country’s defenses are concerned. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey testified yesterday that the sequester would degrade the preparedness of the armed forces to the point that it would eventually become “immoral” to deploy American troops.
For their part, many Republicans are beginning to acknowledge that sequestration will go into effect. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday that it’s “pretty clear” the across-the-board cuts will begin on March 1 and rejected out of hand the prospect of “last-minute negotiations” to avert them. Missouri senator Roy Blunt told Politico earlier today, “I think the sequester is gonna happen.”
The blame game over the automatic cuts raged publicly last week, as GOP lawmakers brandishing Bob Woodward’s new book launched an effort to remind the public that President Obama himself introduced the sequester into the debt-ceiling negotiations during the summer of 2011. Though Jay Carney conceded yesterday that the sequester was in fact proposed by the White House, Senate majority whip Dick Durbin has alleged that “sequestration was designed as a budget threat, not as a budget strategy.”
Chafin is not persuaded. “What we haven’t seen,” he says, “is any strategy or leadership from the White House to resolve it. It’s interesting that Senator Durbin is now saying what the sequester was meant to be in a way that implies ownership over the mechanism, which is precisely what [the White House has] denied.”
Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, together with senators Kelly Ayotte, Jim Inhofe, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham have proposed legislation that would delay the sequester without raising taxes. It would do so by freezing congressional pay and reducing the federal workforce, through attrition, rather than layoffs.
The White House has yet to responded to the proposal. “Last week the president said he was open to considering it,” Chafin explains.
“It would be interesting to know what they think.”