How the Defense Department Will Escape the Super Committee's Budget Cuts


Don't worry, Darth, we won't let them cut the Death Star budget.

Last week I argued that for anyone hoping for spending restraint, the best plausible outcome from the current deficit reduction Super Committee process was for the committee to fail and the automatic sequestration cuts to kick in. But best plausible doesn't mean it's likely to be a major step toward spending restraint, or anything close. The sequestration process would withhold funds from Democratic priorities like Medicare as well as Republican priorities like the defense budget in hopes of motivating both parties to work out a deal. But Republicans have made it pretty clear that they oppose the defense cuts and are going to to attempt to avoid them if at all possible. And as Wired's Spencer Ackerman reports, that doesn't look like it will be much of a problem:

It's true that right now the Supercommittee looks imperiled. But that's less of a problem for defense than it seems.

Gordon Adams, a veteran of the White House budget office's mid-1990s battles to shrink the deficit, explains. "This sequester is announced in January, if the Supercommittee fails," says Adams, who's now an American University professor and fellow at the Stimson Center studying the defense budget. "But the sequester itself — the act of lowering available resources — won't happen until January 2013. It's just announced in January 2012, but it doesn't actually happen until January 2013."

Now let's take a trip, Doctor Doom-like, to the dystopian future of January 2012, the day after sequestration. "There's a huge fracas in Congress," Adams predicts. The military, which has railed for months against budget cuts, accelerates its warnings that the sky will fall under sequestration, amplified by hack think-tankers and journalists, and armed with more defense-industry studies about massive nationwide job losses soon to follow. Industry lobbyists kick into overdrive to roll sequestration back, teaming up with the small army of defense industry friends known as "members of Congress who want to get reelected."

Oh, and there's one other thing that will happen between January 2012 and January 2013: a presidential election. And under this scenario, the election will occur under the unwelcome cloud of defense cuts the Pentagon says are too big — a problem for President Obama, his Republican challenger, and legislators of both parties.

"In those circumstances, I don't think the sequester will ever happen," says Adams — even if the Supercommittee fails and sequester becomes allegedly "automatic." Congress and Obama will have a full year to change the law, something that many in Congress already want to do.

As Ackerman notes, the military is working hard to convince legislators that the sequestration cuts would put American security at risk. Earlier this week, according to the AP, Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno declared that sequestration "would be catastrophic to the military" and "would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening readiness." But the cuts would merely slow the explosive growth in defense spending that's occurred over the last decade. As the AP also explains:

The Defense Department's budget has nearly doubled to $700 billion in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those numbers do not include the trillion-plus spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How much of this growth would the sequestration cuts roll back? How devastating would they actually be? According to the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble, if fully implemented, they would reset defense spending all the way back…to 2007 levels. Which apparently constitutes an unsafe and unacceptable risk to national security. 


NEXT: Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & "The Better Angels of Our Nature"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Compounding the problem is that a number of tea partiers of my acquaintance are already on board with the mantra that defense cuts will hurt our ability to defend ourselves which, after all, is a constitutionally mandated power of the federal government. If,say, half of the tea party bails on the side of level or more defense spending, we’ve lost any hope of rationalizing defense spending to carry out a Ron Paul type defense mission.

    1. What happened to Ron Paul’s defense strategy of defending America from Mexico?

        1. Securing the border with the military. That stuff.

    2. Which is stupid. They can mostly understand how spending more on education doesn’t actually improve outcomes, I don’t get why they can’t see that the same is possible for defense.

  2. If Congress breaks the budget deal they made a few months ago, the bond vigilantes will descend on Treasury like so many starved velociraptors. The Fed will become (again) the bulk buyer of Treasuries, because it will be the only way to clear the bond auctions without paying significantly higher rates. The dollar will decline, although probably not outright collapse given the weakness in the Euro, and inflationary pressure will rise.

    1. What a downer, can’t we stick with fart jokes?

    2. Soon the fed will be the bulk buyer of stocks soon too.

  3. Yeah, but won’t the same thing happen on the social spending side?

  4. “they would reset defense spending all the way back…to 2007 levels”

    We can’t go back to 2007!!!!! Don’t you remember??!?!?!? We were all so scared we were living in bunkers!!!!!

    1. well… Bush WAS president in 2007

  5. “Oh, and there’s one other thing that will happen between January 2012 and January 2013: a presidential election.”

    I’d lay odds on a war; spin the wheel

    1. “Operation Find Our Presidents Head”

      Find the head!Find the head!

  6. Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno declared that sequestration “would be catastrophic to the military” and “would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening readiness.”

    In my fantasy reality, the President would ask for this idiot’s resignation live on television.

    1. No kidding.

      “General Odierno has demonstrated that he lacks the skills and the motivation to discharge his duties by announcing that, under his management, our armed forces cannot apply the same resources it had in 2007 to carry out fewer missions in 2012. Consequently, when his resignation arrives on my desk, which I expect shortly, it will be accepted.”

      1. “Gen. McClelland, if you aren’t going to use the Army of the Potomac, I’d like to use it.” A. Lincoln

      2. 1. The Army Chief of Staff has almost no control over how money is spent – Congress can’t distribute goodies to their districts if some General is in charge of the money.

        2. Do you really want an Obama Yes-man running the Army?

        3. Do you think Odierno (or any Four-Star) would take a pay-cut by resigning?

        1. All good point OS except for the last one. Sure they could make more money on the outside. But they wouldn’t be a general anymore and treated like God’s presence on earth. Don’t kid yourself. Those guys love being generals. And they don’t do it for the money. Being fired would kill them.

          1. I’ve known a couple of One-Stars (who retired out there). I honestly don’t know what drives the top guys. I’m sure most would rather stay in uniform than collecting their pension or working for a contractor.

            1. One stars are just over grown Colonels. It is two stars and better than matter. And every one I have ever dealt with, including Ordinerno BTW, loves the authority and status of being a general. Not that a lot of them are not really smart and competant guys, they are. But they love the status and miss it terribly when they retire.

              1. Yep – They were stud Colonels who missed their regiments.

            2. most of the top guys are driven by politics and the appearance of status. The military has soldier’s generals and political generals. For instance, Schwartzkopf was a troops’ general, Powell was the political kind. Many of the Pentagon guys stay due to ego.

    2. the downside of your fantasy is that it requires an actual president rather the guy who plays the part on tv. The campaigner-in-chief has no time for the requirements of the actual job.

    3. Must be some fantasy world where ANY bureaucrat (defense or otherwise) cheerfully announces that his dept can live with an x% budget cut because they will have less to do.

  7. I’ll probably lose my job if the defense cuts actually go through, which is mildly annoying. It’d be decidedly less annoying, though, if the cuts were truly the first step on a journey to any sort of fiscal sanity. But they’re not. I’m pretty sure these are the last “draconian” cuts this group of intellectual titans will ever seriously consider.

    1. I’m not sure if my job would be on the chopping block if defense cuts were made. But I know it would really difficult to advance.

  8. I don’t understand why anybody thought this “supercommittee” trick would work any better than any of the other tricks that have been tried. It’s the whole system that’s flawed; sticking new widgets on it isn’t going to magically create sensible budgets.

  9. the subcommittee is a sham that:
    a) was set up for failure
    b) that demonstrates a clear absence of political leadership from either side
    c) gives the chattering class something to chew on in lieu of actual news

    What if we had a group of elected representatives who voted the spending priorities that their constituents were willing to fund through taxation….what would such a body be called?

  10. If those numbers really exclude the wars and their effects – replacing worn-out equipment, called up Reserve Units, etc… I have to assume it’s our broken procurement system driving costs.

    Our Navy is significantly smaller than it was a decade ago. The Air Force is shrinking. The Marine Corps is 1 regiment larger, but that is a temporary expansion due to the wars and the 9th Marines are going to be drawn back down.

    The Army is about half the size it was in the 80’s. It is slightly larger than 2000 – with some of Obama’s beloved Rangers and SF units being added. A lot of National Guard units have been stripped of their heavy equipment – offsetting those costs.

    In other words the military is spending twice as much with roughly the same number of people.

    We are wasting money on equipment from the most important Congressional Districts. We could cut a lot of these costs – but Congress will do it all wrong since they are the source of the problem.

    1. In other words the military is spending twice as much with roughly the same number of people.

      Replace “the military” with “public schools” or “Department of Transportation” or anything of the like and you will have a clearer idea of the problem.

      1. Rice with veal steaks stuffed with ham and cheese and grilled with breadcrumbs? Sounds good.

        1. I knew we weren’t eating at the same chow-hall.

  11. It’s the whole system that’s flawed; sticking new widgets on it isn’t going to magically create sensible budgets.

    Does that mean my Yugo won’t really go twice as fast with a big wing on it?

  12. Gee, the budget battle and its theatrical finale was nothing more than a smokescreen to kick the can down the road?

    Color me fucking shocked.

  13. Santorum told me that we can’t cut one penny from the defense budget and he’s a serious candidate!

    1. Serious candidate? Ha, ha! That’s priceless! The frothy mix is running for a talk radio/Fox News gig.

  14. It would destroy our security. You people don’t think these assholes are going to stop stealing do you? Of course not. They will continue to steal and make sure the cuts go to the absolutely most valuable programs. That way their stealing isn’t interrupted and they are creating a “readiness crisis” that will allow them to steal some more.

    Don’t think for a moment the generals and the contractors won’t totally fuck the average solidier in the field and retiree to keep stealing. That is just how they roll.

    1. Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

      In this case the stupidity that results from any bureaucratic structure, plus Congressional micro-management.

      1. They are just theives. They have convinced themselves that their stealing is really vital to the country. But they are thieves nonetheless. Just thieves that are good at rationalizing.

        1. Speaking out of both sides of your mouth today John?

          1. No. I believe my position on this entire thread has been the Congress and the leadership will gladly sacrifice readiness for pork. That is how Washington works.

            1. They use “readiness” just like the Park Service uses the Washington Monument. If you cut our budget that is the first thing we shut down.

              Anyway this is academic until you have a new foreign policy consensus in this country – one in which it isn’t our responsibility to police the world or be mercenaries for global corporations. That will happen just after you can ask any random person on the street “who are the Kardashians” and get nothing more than a blank look as a response.

              1. I spent the first seven months of this year and it even appalled me the hawk that I am. It is disgraceful. Thousands of contractors making a fortune doing nothing that I could see. Everyone just getting rich. And serving absolutely no purpose. Why the hell are we still in Kuwait? I hate to say it but the contractors will give up our foreign entanglments when we pry it from their cold dead hands.

                1. I hate to say it but the contractors will give up our foreign entanglments when we pry it from their cold dead hands.

                  Well, if they insist on doing it that way I’m okay with it.

              2. I spent seven months in Kuwait I mean. And it was appalling.

  15. I’ve been a defense hawk my entire life. Defense spending needs to be cut just as sharply as everything else – if not more so.

  16. 1. The Army Chief of Staff has almost no control over how money is spent

    The poor motherfucker is helpless; those big mean Congressmen held a gun to his head and made him say those things. It’s not like he could make a rational case, based on his expertise as a career military man, for a qualitative analysis of programs.

    1. It is called the law and civilian control over the military P Brooks. He really does have almost no control over how the money is spent. Every year, well every year back when we had a Congress that passed a budget, there is a defense authorization and a defense appropriations act that is thousands of pages long and telle him how pretty much every penny should be spent. Now he gets CRs that tell him the same thing three or four times a year.

      1. John, come off it. You know damn well that a four-star has a lot of control over “how” the money is spent. It may be allocated to certain funds down to the last penny, but how that money moves from those funds is largely in the implementing bureaucrat’s control.

        1. Oh bullshit he does. Read the defense authorization bill. That money is spent before it gets to him. For example, anything over $500K for construction, has to come from construction funds. You can’t just move money from fund to fund. And those funds contain all sorts of restrictions on how it can be spent. It is everything from restrictions that make it impossible to give a contract to anyone but one contractor (although it never says that it just sets seemingly neutral criteria that only one congres critter’s favorite can meet) to restrictions on things the money can’t be spent on “no money may be usd to build a widget repair facility at Fort Swampy. If you want to do anything other than normal O&M, you better have a specific appropriation.

          Libertarians are smart people, but they have a bad habit of having no idea how the government actually works.

          1. I’ve done DOD Financial Allocations, John. I know for a stone-cold fact that generals have a lot more say when it comes to funding as you are letting on.

            1. I have done fiscal law in DOD. And I am telling you that my experience is different. Sure there are rogues out there who do what they want. But that is usually penny anti stuff.

              Look at the budget process. The army doesnt’ write its budget. It writes what it wants and then DOD decides what it gets. And OMB decides what DOD gets. And then Congress does whatever the hell it wants. And the money comes back through OMB and DOD before it even gets to the Army. The Congressional Appropriators determine how the money is spent. That is why those assholes love those committee spots so much.

        2. Apparently you aren’t familiar with Title 10 authority. Money is allocated to programs (by Congress) and the man with THE authority to spend that money is the PM – not his boss, or his boss’s boss or anyone else up the chain. It isn’t anything like a corporate chain of command and anyone other than the PM has damn little say in how the money is spent. Likewise, the PM is the one that goes to jail if the money is misspent.

        3. Also reverend, the COS of the Army is by no means the top bureaucrat. He is under the DOD and OMB, both of whom can further restrict how he spends the money and there is nothing he can do about it.

      2. Plus, P Brooks specifically referenced his statements as being unprofessional/unproductive, which has nothing to do with whether he actually spends the money himself or not.

        Instead of laying out a logical case for continued funding, he just threw out the “ZOMG we can’t respond to teh threats & JOBZZZZ!!!!!!” canard.

    2. 1. The Army Chief of Staff has almost no control over how money is spent.

      Yeah, but he’s got a lot of control over running his yap about how the armed forces will collapse in an olive green heap if they don’t get MOAR MONEY!

      1. Just like all the forests will die if there is any cut to the Forest Service, etc., etc. repeat ad-infinitum.

        It isn’t like this is some special kind of evil/stupid just because it is DoD.

  17. instead of worrying about defense cuts, think of defense as a revenue generator:
    1) nations that host US installations can pay for the protection, and the not insignificant economic activity that presence generates.
    2) when places are unwilling to pay, move the post or base to some unpopulated spot on the Southern border. You would be amazed at how quickly empty space in TX, NM, AZ, and CA will fill up once thousands of troops arrive. Housing, shopping, entertainment, and all the rest will spring up. So you get economic development, private sector job creation, AND border security. Some here may not care about the last one, but most folks tend to like the first two.

  18. You missed my point, John. I’m pretty sure the “civilians” listen to his advice. Unfortunately (as Gojira noted), his “advice” consists of running in circles screaming “The sky is falling!” That quote should be justification to have him shot.

    Saying the Joint Chiefs don’t control the budget is the same mendacious nonsense that moron dunphy likes to spew about how the poor, poor pigs are “obligated” to enforce dumb laws while completely refusing to admit they actively lobby for the expansion of their power and authority.

    1. True P Brooks. But anyone who would actually have the balls to say “yeah we can get buy with less” would have been passed over long before they got to be chief of staff. Every general in history whines for more money and troops. You and R.C.’s naivity on this is kind of funny. It is pretty clear neither one of you have never so much as flown over the Pentegon.

    2. So Congress doesn’t control the budget? The Chiefs can just buy the best equipment for the money? They could drop the F-35 boondoggle and buy Saab Gripen’s?

      1. I seem to recall a kerfluffle where Gates/DoD/brass didn’t want a second engine on the F-35 that the Representatives and Senators from GE were bound and determined to make them take.

        1. Well, there were international considerations as well… The Brits and many other countries want this aircraft too.

          1. And BAE (London based defense contractor) is the biggest foreign contractor on the project. Why the UK is the only Level 1 partner on the project.

            1. and one of the engine designs going on the aircraft is Rolls-Royce. The Brits won’t let it go single source away from Rolls.

              I guess I do remember something from my DAU classes. ugh…

              1. It must be nice to be an India. Just invite everyone to send their best planes, tanks, etc… They test and make a decision on the price vs. performance. Like a business.

  19. The Chiefs can just buy the best equipment for the money?

    It’s a waste of time, but I’ll play one more round.

    What, in this quote: sequestration “would be catastrophic to the military” and “would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening readiness.” indicates to you the general in any way gives a fuck about qualitatively superior alternatives?

    1. So, playing along, can you show me a quote from any govt dept head who said “oh yeah, we can accept this budget cut without drastically impacting our mission”. If you’ve got one of those, then I’ll work up some outrage about how bad the military top brass is. Otherwise [yawn].

    2. Apparently the Chief wants to keep his job – instead of coming out and saying that Congress has politicized the procurement process to the point we are wasting huge sums. You don’t make Army Chief of Staff without playing the game.

  20. If you’ve got one of those, then I’ll work up some outrage about how bad the military top brass is. Otherwise [yawn].

    I hope you don’t think I have some special complaint about Pentagon bureaucratic empire-building which does not apply equally to every other branch of government. Because that would be wrong.

    Sorry your butt hurts.

  21. Nothing you (or anyone else here) said bothers my butt half as much as the ‘roid that refuses to recede.

    Big shock, top govt bureaucrat proclaims end of world when his budget is threatened. This is so dog-bites-man news that I truly fail to see why we have allowed that moron Ackerman to get us worked up at all.

    1. I agree. Yeah, generals want a bigger budget. That is a real scoop there Spencer. Shouldn’t he be out calling people racists and throwing them against the wall?

      And anyone on the journolist should have the moniker “journolist douche” applied to all mentions of them for all time.

      1. John, as always unwilling to concede that anyone on the other side of his imaginary cultural divide could ever make a valid point that libertarians would agree with.

  22. Excellent article.
    At some point we have to encourage the deluded nationalists who call themselves libertarians to smarten up or stop dirtying our name. They are actually just quasi-fascists, dumbed-down American nationalists, and even as such they’re an embarrassment because they simply refuse to make the distinction between useful weapons and those (B1, B2, our 11 floating-boondoggle aircraft carriers) that exist solely to divert taxpayers’ money to dividend collectors.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.