National Guard October 2012 : Page 22

SEQUESTRATION Tick, Tick, Tick A runaway effort aimed at measured deficit reduction will blast a chunk out of the defense budget—including $1.5 billion from the Guard— unless lawmakers defuse it Shutterstock 22 | Na tional Guard

Tick, Tick, Tick

William Matthews

A runaway effort aimed at measured deficit reduction will blast a chunk out of the defense budget—including $1.5 billion from the Guard— unless lawmakers defuse it

SEQUESTRATION WAS SUPPOSED to be a temporary political threat so distasteful that Congress would never actually let it happen.

It was born in July 2011, when Democrats and Republicans were hopelessly deadlocked over spending cuts versus tax increases and the deadline for raising the national debt ceiling—or plunging the United States into default—was at hand.

Rather than hammer out a compromise, the feuding parties punted. They passed the Budget Control Act, imposing a mechanism—sequestration—to automatically cut $1.2 trillion in spending over the next decade if they couldn’t work out a better deal by the end of 2012.

Half of the cut would come from defense, half from domestic programs beginning Jan. 2, 2013. It was a solution that nobody liked, but with 17 months for both sides to calm down and compromise, it seemed that sequestration would surely be avoided.

Now, with three months to go and no real signs of progress, sequestration looms ominously.

For the Defense Department, sequestration means a $54.7 billion cut in the $620.2 billion budget planned for 2013, then $54.7 billion in cuts each year through 2021.

The National Guard portion would be about $1.56 billion, mostly from operations and maintenance accounts (box, page 24), according to a report last month from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). That’s out of $28 billion in total funding requested for the Army and Air Guard for fiscal 2013.

The cuts would be automatic and across the board, taking a chunk out of every Guard spending account except those for personnel. The services “would be able to shift funds to ensure war-fighting and critical military readiness capabilities were not degraded,” OMB said. But that requires deeper spending cuts in other accounts.

For the Guard, this means equipment inventories, nearly filled thanks to years of war funding, would begin to dwindle again. Troops would receive less training, and there would be fewer dollars to keep aircraft flying, vehicles operating and weapons in good repair.

Across the country, sequestration could mean closing 600 armories and halting 1,800 Guard construction projects, says retired Lt. Gen. H Stephen Blum, a former chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Sequestration also threatens to reverse a decade of progress that has transformed the Guard into an operational reserve that is now indispensable to every U.S. military operation.

Maj. Gen. William Wofford, the Arkansas adjutant general and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, says he fears that troops will be called up and deployed without adequate training or proper equipment.

Increasingly, he and others use the term “hollow force.” “It’s past the point where everyone realizes this is crazy,” Wofford says.

Blum warns that sequestration also will undermine the Guard’s ability to respond quickly to domestic emergencies. A Guard unit that’s now able to respond to a hurricane or a blizzard in four to eight hours might take two or three days after its funding has been sequestered, he says.

“If they’re going to show up that late, you might as well send a mortuary affairs unit,” says Blum, who is also a former deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which oversees federal forces in homeland defense.

Gen. Craig R. McKinley, who stepped down as Guard Bureau chief last month, voiced the same concerns to the lawmakers responsible for sequestration.

The severe automatic cuts “would significantly limit the Guard’s ability to function as an operational force” and would “reduce the department’s capacity to protect the homeland and respond to emergencies,” he warned the Senate Appropriations Committee in May.

Especially onerous is the requirement that the cuts be made “across the board.” That is, all programs would be cut by the same percentage—essential programs cut just as much as others. Training and maintenance would suffer as much as armory upgrades.

“We’re going to have to cut not in a systematic manner, but almost in a panic mode,” says Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the South Carolina adjutant general.

Some well-considered cuts would be manageable, he says. But “the uncontrolled, knee-jerk cuts of sequestration will affect us for years. It’s a risk we cannot afford,” he says.

Others say that the services can probably avoid acrossthe- board cuts and protect more valuable programs, but the process depends on Congress, which created the problem.

“There’s nothing in sequestration that turns off reprogramming authority,” says Richard Kogan, a former senior advisor at OMB and a former director of budget policy for the House Budget Committee.

The services would have to get congressional approval to shift money from less important programs to more important ones, Kogan says. But if the changes are “rational,” lawmakers are likely to consent.

So far, the details on how much to cut, what to cut and how priority programs might be protected remains a mystery to most Guard officials around the country.

“The issue we face is that there’s no guidance,” says Mark Wayda, the director of government and public affairs for the Ohio National Guard. “We don’t know what it would mean if [sequestration] happens. We don’t have a sense” for what would be cut or by how much.

And the Guard Bureau is waiting to hear from others at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has already made his opinion clear: “It’s mindless, and it will hollow out our military,” he told Guardsmen in Niagara Falls Aug 9.

The damage sequestration would do isn’t just to the military. It could kill 2.14 million U.S. jobs and push unemployment above 9 percent, says Stephen Fuller, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia. He calculates that sequestration would cut $215 billion from the U. S. economy and $109 billion from personal earnings.

The National Association of Manufacturers offers similar alarming statistics. The defense industry alone could lose 1 million jobs by 2014 if sequestration occurs. Aerospace and shipbuilding would be particularly hard hit. So would California, Texas and Virginia.

The Congressional Budget Office warned Aug. 22 that “fiscal tightening” under sequestration “will lead to economic conditions in 2013 that will probably be considered a recession.”

Almost nobody wants sequestration, yet those who could prevent it—members of Congress—seem unwilling to take the steps necessary to do so. The no-compromise battle over federal spending, the size of government, tax cuts, tax increases, the budget deficit and the national debt continues.

In many years, and in all years since 2000, the U.S. government has spent more than it collects in revenue, thus creating deficits. The 2013 budget calls for spending $3.8 trillion, but taking in only $2.5 trillion, thus creating a $1.3 trillion deficit.

To spend more than takes in, the government borrows money, each year going deeper into debt. The debt is now About $16 trillion. In 2000 it was less than $6 trillion.

Some blame the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tax cuts during the President George W. Bush administration and the Great Recession for much of the current debt. Others blame federal programs ranging from Medicare and Medicaid to student loans and farm subsidies.

Whatever the reason, the federal government borrows one of every three dollars it spends.

Periodically, Congress must vote to increase the limit on how much the government can borrow. It has done so 11 times since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But in 2011, deficit hawks balked at an increase and demanded sharp restrictions on future spending. The restrictions were spelled out in the Budget Control Act.

The act required cuts in discretionary spending, including defense spending, by $1 trillion over 10 years. It also established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction— the so-called “Supercommittee”—to propose ways to cut another $1.2 trillion.

And if the Supercommittee failed, the act would impose $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts split half and half between defense and domestic programs.


The Budget Control Act “amounted to a giant game of chicken in an effort [by Congress] to force itself to agree on meaningful budget reform,” writes Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“The practical problem is that the nation, the president, and the Congress are now all hostages to that same, ongoing game of chicken. If Congress does not act, there will be massive cuts in federal spending on January 2, 2013, threatening America’s security and economic health,” Cordesman adds.

“The sequester was intended to be a sword—a warning hanging over the heads of Congress to ensure that they work in a bipartisan manner to enact a deficit reduction plan,” Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga, told constituents in Macon on Aug. 21.

Sequestration itself was never actually supposed to happen and is “an unwise and destructive policy” that would cut federal spending not only on defense, but also on programs ranging from education funding to medical research, job training to food safety and workplace inspections, he said.

But even such defense hawks as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted for the Budget Control Act. He now says he regrets it.

“I think we did a stupid thing when we said if the select committee failed then there would be automatic across-theboard cuts,” McCain conceded during an Aug 15 interview with Fox News. “So, I plead guilty. It was a bad thing to do.”

Of course, sequestration and who voted for it has become part of this year’s election battle.

During a July 23 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Barack Obama told veterans that “there are a number of Republicans in Congress who don’t want you to know that most of them voted for these cuts.”

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon promptly fired back. The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “President Obama played no small part in setting the time bomb that is sequestration. Indeed, automatic defense cuts were included in the Budget Control Act at his insistence.”

In the House, 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats voted for the Budget Control Act. In the Senate, 28 Republicans and 46 Democrats voted for it. The president signed it into law Aug. 2, 2011.

Days later, Panetta labeled the sequestration provision “a doomsday mechanism.” And when asked during a Senate hearing whether the automatic cuts would be like “shooting ourselves in the foot.” Panetta replied, “We’d be shooting ourselves in the head.”

Reality may be a little less severe. Cutting $54.7 billion from next year’s $620.2 defense budget would reduce defense spending to about the level it was in 2007, says Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

The 2013 defense budget request includes $531.7 billion as a “base budget” to cover basic military expenses, and $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, chiefly to pay for the war in Afghanistan. Total proposed spending is $620.2 billion.


After sequestration, the 2013 total would be $565.5 billion. By contrast, the 2012 budget includes a $530.6 billion base budget and $115.1 billion for overseas operations.

While ordering across-the-board cuts, the Budget Control Act gave Obama authority to exempt military personnel from spending cuts, and he did so.

The House and Senate late last month passed a continuing resolution to keep the government operating for the next six months at 2012 spending levels. The president was expected to sign it. This will alter the sequestration math, but not significantly

But shielding the $149.2 billion budgeted for military pay, bonuses, benefits and allowances means that spending in the other budget categories—operations and maintenance, research and development and weapons procurement, for example—must be cut more. So, what would have been about an 8 percent cut to the whole budget now must be a 10.3 percent cut to everything but personnel, Harrison says.

But Obama’s decision to protect personnel prevents the Army Guard from losing about 20,000 soldiers. Before the personnel exemption, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said sequestration would require shrinking the Army by 100,000 soldiers, and the Guard’s share of that would have been about 20,000.

Blum, who discussed sequestration Aug. 15 at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., warns that Keeping people but cutting funds for maintenance, training and equipment is bad policy. The U.S. military’s advantage, he said, has long been having the best-trained and bestequipped troops, not necessarily having larger numbers than our adversaries.

Paul McHale, a former assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, warns that sequestration will reduce the amount of federal “Title 32 money” that the Guard relies on to respond to major domestic emergencies under the control of state governors.

Guard civil support teams, which respond to weapons of mass destruction attacks, and CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosive) units would be less able to respond, if Title 32 funding is cut, McHale says.

Sequestration will mean that there is less money to pay for the Guard troops to patrol the Southwest border and less to protect critical infrastructure, McHale says, and could have “a devastating impact on security at home.”

Blum warns that sequestration “will gut” what is now “the very best force of citizen-soldiers that this nation has ever had.”

But will sequestration happen?

“There is still time for Congress to come together and hammer out a balanced, bipartisan agreement that will prevent sequestration,” said Bishop, the Georgia congressman.

Don’t hold your breath, says Harrison.

“I think sequestration is getting more likely by the day, but we really won’t know until the last minute—January 1 at midnight,” says Harrison, the CSBA budget expert. “The only thing that forces action in this Congress is a crisis, and even then they don’t act until right up to the deadline.”

But even if the deadline passes and sequestration occurs, all is not lost, Harrison says.

“Congress could come back weeks later and rescind [sequestration] and put all of the money back. This is mostly reversible,” he says.

And if the money is not restored?

“Then you do the best you can. [A 10 percent cut] is gonna be bad, no doubt,” Harrison says. “But few things are the end of the world.”

William Matthews is a Springfield, Va.-based freelance writer who specializes in military matters. He can be contacted via

“If Congress does not act, there will be massive cuts in federal spending on January 2, 2013, threatening America’s security and economic health.”

—Anthony Cordesman

Defense analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies Washington, D.C.

“The uncontrolled, knee-jerk cuts of sequestration will affect us for years. It’s a risk we cannot afford.”

—Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston

South Carolina adjutant general

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