With Congressional budget leaders Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., engaged in ongoing talks, optimism has grown for short-term relief from the budget cuts known as the sequester. Recently, leaders from both parties have floated the possibility of a one or two-year sequestration alternative.
While this is a mostly positive development, there is also reason to remain cautious. Even if the bill is slightly reduced, there is no "get out of jail free" card for the U.S. military. The bill may not be as high, but there will still be a big balance in the end.
For one, both sides have been publicly open to funding defense at post-sequestration levels in order to hold out for their preferred legislative priorities — namely, preventing tax increases on the Republican side and protecting entitlement spending on the Democratic side. According to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently told colleagues that only one Republican senator supports raising the caps on discretionary spending, including for the military. While House Republicans may sign off on a mini-bargain, their Senate counterparts may not be as quick to hold hands and jump.
Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has signaled his priorities, recently reiterating his long-held position by asking, "We are going to affect entitlements so we can increase defense spending? Don't check me for a vote there. I'm not interested in that."
Moreover, many of the proposals now on the table simply borrow from or build off of previous proposals on other negotiating tables. Most would reduce the Pentagon's total bill in 2014 and 2015 at the cost of future defense cuts deeper than sequestration in order to stay budget neutral. Cans kicked are becoming a preferred way of doing business in Washington.
Under one possible solution offered by the Congressional Budget Office, the Pentagon could "backload" its sequestration cuts while providing some short-term relief for the military. This would create breathing room to gradually phase in cost-cutting measures that typically require several years to produce meaningful savings. Although this approach sounds reasonable, it is not a silver bullet solution. Setting aside the implausibility of getting these reforms approved by Congress, they may or may not produce real and bankable savings.
Worse still, there is no guarantee that any realized savings would be put back dollar-for-dollar into other defense investments. Pentagon leaders have fallen for that trick before – in the name of contributing to debt reduction – only to see the money siphoned off for other federal spending priorities before the ink is dry on the deal. While near-term softening would appear to be helpful, the problem with sequestration is not just that the cuts happen too quickly but that they are too steep coming off of three years of previous and deep defense budget cuts and hollow build-up since 9/11.
When Pentagon leaders conducted their Strategic Choices and Management Review over the summer, they did not even attempt to abide by the caps mandated by sequestration. Instead, officials essentially assumed the flexibility to backload cuts, not unlike many of the options currently on the negotiating table. Revealingly, this did not make the forthcoming tradeoffs any easier or less consequential. Among numerous other choices, potential consequences included further shrinking the active duty Army by over 22 percent and the Marine Corps by 18 percent, eliminating as many as two or three Navy carrier battle groups and retiring hundreds of additional planes and ships.
What's more, according to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, the Pentagon review itself was based on "rosy" and "dangerous" assumptions. Pushing even deeper cuts to the right is only going to worsen and elongate the military's budget challenges. This solution only has the allure of fixing the readiness challenges while actually growing the bill required to address increasing readiness shortfalls.
The hopeful prospect for any deal to mitigate the short-term sequestration pain should not cloud the need for a smarter and more lasting solution. Unfortunately, right now the alternatives would only extend and prolong the pain for the Department of Defense rather than undoing it.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.