National Security & Defense

The Defense Sequester Has Got to Go

Senator Tom Cotton, October 2015 (Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
It’s time we scrapped the Budget Control Act and started rebuilding our military.

There is no better analyst of the national scene than Hugh Hewitt, and no more effective United States senator than Tom Cotton. The two get together frequently on Hewitt’s radio show, and Hewitt recently interviewed Cotton on MSNBC.

Among the subjects they covered was the defense sequester. Cotton summed up the issue in a nutshell, expressing the frustration that many of us feel:

Hewitt: Putting aside the ups and downs of the defense act, authorization act, and all of the Budget Control Act maneuvering, are you confident that by the end of the year, the Budget Control Act will be no more, and thus the sequester of the Pentagon removed?

Cotton: I certainly hope so, Hugh. This is the single most important thing that we could do for our military, is to eliminate the so-called sequester for defense spending. The sequester is automatic spending cuts if spending exceeds caps that were imposed six years ago. The Budget Control Act is not the Constitution. The 112th Congress is not the Constitutional Convention. We should not allow our hands to be tied by something they passed in 2011 in a vastly different circumstance, before Russia had meddled in our campaigns last year, before China had built and militarized islands in the South China Sea, before North Korea had tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, before Syria had become the epic kind of civil war that was radiating throughout the Middle East, before Iran had $100 billion dollars in free cash. We should not allow our hands to be tied by what was passed in 2011. We should set our defense budget based on the threats we face today and the strategy needed to counteract those threats.

Our government has been operating under a self-imposed, artificially constrained budget for the Department of Defense since the Budget Control Act (BCA) went into effect in 2013. The BCA sets a cap on defense spending that is deliberately punitive. The bill was designed to create pain in the discretionary budget and thereby give the government an incentive to address the real fiscal issue it faces: the growing gap between what the government is collecting and what it is spending on entitlement programs.

In other words, Congress and President Obama decided to force the Department of Defense to disarm, in an attempt to hold the national security of the United States hostage. The ransom that they were trying to extract, from themselves, was some kind of entitlement reform. It was as if a family had purchased too big a house and the parents, in order to force themselves to reduce their monthly mortgage payment, had started gradually starving their children. 

If this strikes you as dangerously insane, you’re right. It is. 

Today, we are further away than ever from entitlement reform. And we are facing growing threats to our vital interests in every major region of the world. That is the legacy of the BCA.

In answering Hewitt’s question, Senator Cotton recited a list of the threats to American security which have arisen since sequestration was passed and went into effect. Those threats share a common thread: They all arose indirectly from the BCA, which signaled to bad actors worldwide that we were deliberately weakening our own military and thus wouldn’t necessarily have the will or capacity to respond to their aggressions.

For years, I’ve sat in meetings with General and Flag Officers, who have referred to the “era of fiscal restraint” in which they operate. These officers, who live in a culture of deference to the judgment of their civilian masters, are acting under the assumption that the BCA is a serious budgetary policy intended to address the long term fiscal challenges facing the United States.

It isn’t. It was a political response to the political crisis facing political leaders in 2011. There was no thought given at the time either to national security or to any concrete future plan for actually passing entitlement reform.

Today, we are further away than ever from entitlement reform. And we are facing growing threats to our vital interests in every major region of the world. That is the legacy of the BCA.

I have written over and over about the deteriorating condition of America’s armed forces. I will say now that the situation is worse than anyone is actually admitting. Whatever happens on the Korean Peninsula in the short term, a storm is coming somewhere, and the United States is not ready for it. That state of affairs won’t be changed overnight; the damage has been done, and while intentions can change quickly, capability cannot.

But there is a ray of hope. We should not overestimate the abilities, or the will, of global aggressors — not just rogue regimes, but our peer and near-peer competitors. Though they have been pushing America around recently, they still fear our latent power. Once that power is engaged, it will force even our most potent adversaries either to curb their ambitions or act ahead of their timetables; in either case, we will begin regaining the initiative.

Congress sent the wrong signal five years ago by adopting the BCA. Congress can send the right signal now by ending it. Winston Churchill once said that America’s political leaders “will always do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” It’s not too late for them to prove him correct.


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Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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