Loathed Continuing Resolution Might Be Way Out of Defense Cuts

One expert suggests the loathed continuing resolution might be best way to avoid massive military cuts.

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Washington insiders often lament lawmakers' newfound use of governmentwide spending measures each year to keep all federal agencies operating. But one budget guru says this newfound ritual might be the lone way to avoid the thing feared most in defense circles: sequestration.

Unless lawmakers send President Barack Obama legislation by January 1 that cuts $1.2 trillion in federal debt, the so-called sequestration will occur. Under that arcane-sounding process, twin cuts of around $500 billion will be made to all federal national defense and domestic programs.

President Obama and his presumptive Republican foe, Mitt Romney, have sparred about those defense cuts on the campaign trail. And that sparring likely will only escalate as Election Day draws closer.

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Pentagon leaders, industry executives, and hawkish lawmakers believe a $500 billion cut to planned military spending over a decade will hurt America's security, and cause over 1 million job losses next year alone. Some even say the U.S. would cede its role as the world's most dominant military.

While other lawmakers and budget experts are skeptical about whether the cuts would truly be devastating, there's no doubt some accounts, like those used to buy weapons, would be shrunk. Even the skeptics acknowledge the manner in which the cuts would be made, by simply taking 8 percent to 10 percent from all non-exempt accounts, is unwise budgeting.

Just about everyone in Washington, whether pro-military or a staunch advocate of domestic entitlement programs, is looking for a way to end the sequestration threat.

Well, Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget expert who worked on both the House and Senate budget committees, sees a way out.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada recently signaled, as Congress has done the last few years, that they will pass a governmentwide spending measure known as a continuing resolution later this year to keep the federal government open.

These broad spending measures are viewed as a necessary evil in these bitterly partisan times. But the continuing resolution--called a CR for short in Washington offices, coffee shops, and bars--for 2013 could be a lot more attractive to those worried about a new round of deep military cuts.

"The question I've been getting most often...is whether that CR can be used to stop the sequester from occurring on Jan. 2," Collender writes on his popular Capital Gains and Games blog. "The answer is yes, and it's happened before."

In 1991, lawmakers used a continuing resolution to halt a round of sequestration cuts. The language from that bill, Collender argues, could even be replicated to do the same before the January deadline.

"In the current hyperpartisan political environment, it's important not to minimize the difficulty of enacting legislation that has anything to do with federal spending, taxing, deficits, or the debt," Collender writes. But in general, all it would take to cancel, delay, or modify the sequester...is to amend the Budget Control Act.

"That means that legislation has to be passed by the House and Senate and signed by the president," he writes. "It can't be done by presidential order or by a resolution adopted by the House or Senate or the House and Senate."

And because both chambers of Congress are not expected to pass many other bills by the end of the year, Collender writes, the coming CR might be their best bet at finding a "legislative vehicle to do away with the 2013 sequester."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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