The Corner

We Need Clarity, Not Contention, on Sequestration

In less than six months, current law requires the start of “sequestration,” across-the-board cuts that will cumulatively slash $1 trillion from defense and non-defense discretionary spending in the next decade. Policymakers in the executive branch, lawmakers in Congress, and military leaders widely agree that sequestration cuts to defense spending — which already faces $487 billion in cuts over the next ten years — would be “devastating” and “very high risk” to U.S. national security. But while there is not yet consensus on Capitol Hill regarding how to avoid sequestration, there appears to be growing agreement that President Obama needs to officially explain just how his administration will handle and implement these massive cuts, if they do happen.

Toward that end, the House of Representatives plans to vote later this week on the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 (H.R. 5872), legislation that would require the president to submit an official report to Congress describing in detail sequestration’s impact on discretionary appropriations and direct spending “at the program, project, and activity level.” Introduced by Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) and co-sponsored by 56 lawmakers so far, H.R. 5872 unanimously passed the House Budget Committee on July 2, and is similar in scope and purpose to a Senate-passed bipartisan amendment to the farm bill that was authored by Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Patty Murray (D., Wash.). In the lead-up to the House vote, former vice president Dick Cheney is due to speak to House Republicans today about the dangers of sequestration.

The leadership shown by House Republicans on this issue is commendable, but ultimately avoiding sequestration — which was automatically triggered by the inability of the president and Congress to enact a significant deficit-reduction law before January 2012 — will still require the enactment of a new law. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, however. In May 2012, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would replace the first year of sequestration cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending, but do so through alternative reductions to mandatory federal spending — something which congressional Democrats vehemently oppose. As a result, that bill was dead-on-arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

When Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) declined to take up the House-passed legislation, he repeated President Obama’s message: No sequestration fix will advance without including tax hikes — something which congressional Republicans vehemently oppose. Reid went so far as to say, “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.” Indeed, it is reported that the White House recently urged Senate Democrats to put forward and vote on legislation that, in the words of one news article, “would force Republicans to choose between extending all of the tax cuts and preventing cuts to the defense budget.”

When a reporter recently asked why President Obama was not leading an effort to avoid sequestration, White House spokesman Jay Carney responded, “He has led that effort.” But the problem is that, like on many global challenges, the president hasn’t actually led. His use of the U.S. armed forces and our nation’s security as hostages in a larger political standoff over tax increases certainly doesn’t constitute leadership. The men and women of the military and the American people deserve better leadership from their commander-in-chief.

— Jamie M. Fly is the executive director, and Robert Zarate the policy director, of the Foreign Policy Initiative.


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