If President Obama wanted to provide the armed forces with real relief from sequestration, he could do it. In Congress, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats agree that it simply makes no sense to hobble the U.S. military while ISIS beheads American journalists, Russia invades Ukraine, and Iran refuses to give up its nuclear program.
The president certainly recognizes that sequestration is unbearable from the perspective of national security. Or at least he wants to project an image of concern. In his annual budget request, submitted to Congress earlier today, Mr. Obama asked for $534 billion for defense, or $35 billion more than is allowed by sequestration.
While it may sound like a lot, that figure is far from sufficient. Since 2012, $300 billion has already been taken from the military budget, with $700 billion more scheduled to be cut in coming years. Regrettably, Mr. Obama is unlikely to invest any of his own political capital to ensure that the armed forces get even the $35 billion that he has called for.
If the president gave the green light to centrist Democrats in the Senate, they could easily provide the votes necessary to amend or even repeal sequestration of the defense budget. Yet without permission from the White House, those senators will fear the consequences of deviating from the party line, which is that every dollar of additional defense spending must be matched by a dollar of additional domestic spending.
Rhetoric aside, Mr. Obama’s behavior suggests that he strongly prefers gridlock to any deal that would relieve pressure on the defense budget without supplying matching funds for his domestic priorities. Yet as we look at the world today, the unique importance of rebuilding the military should be clear. Meanwhile, at home, the economy is finally recovering as the president begins his seventh year in office. The trillion-dollar deficits of Mr. Obama’s first years in office have been slashed by more than 50 percent.
So what is the right amount to spend on national security? Six months ago, the congressionally chartered National Defense Panel released its unanimous report on the state of America’s defenses. The pivotal Democrat on the bipartisan panel was Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. Reportedly, Mr. Obama would have preferred to nominate Flournoy, rather than Ashton Carter, as the successor to the current secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel.
Key Republicans on the panel included Ambassador Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy during President George W. Bush’s second term, and former Senator Jim Talent of Missouri.
In its report, the panel called for the immediate repeal of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which is responsible for sequestration. The panel wrote, “sequester has precipitated an immediate readiness crisis; returning to sequester levels of funding in 2016 will lead to a hollow force.” Yet that is precisely where the United States is headed if the president stubbornly holds his ground.
What the country needs, according to the panel, is a return to the budget levels prescribed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates shortly before his departure in 2011. Gates requested $553 billion for 2012, while projecting the need for $611 billion in 2016. This was the last Pentagon budget request based on a comprehensive analysis of U.S. strategy and foreign threats. Since then, budget-cutting imperatives have prevailed, an approach that is penny wise but pound foolish. As the National Defense Panel observed, “national defense needs should drive national defense budgets, not the opposite.”
What if President Obama refuses to give centrist Democrats permission to vote for sequestration relief? Republicans will have to decide how serious they are about showing that they are different from the president whose weakness they constantly criticize. Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are determined to repair the damage that sequestration has done to the armed forces. Yet others in the party may demand that every additional dollar for the military come at the cost of one dollar less for domestic programs.
In the abstract, this dollar-for-dollar approach is not unreasonable. However, it will be a non-starter for centrist Democrats in the Senate, whose votes will be needed to close the deal.
If Republicans want to reclaim their reputation as the party of national security, their leaders will have to make a personal commitment to rallying support for a strong defense, starting with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As presidential candidates begin to emerge, they may also be able to help give their parties some backbone on this crucial issue.
In 2014, voters made clear that they want their elected officials to give national security the highest priority. Looking ahead to 2016, both parties should follow the electorate’s lead.
— David Adesnik is policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.