Troops Held Hostage in Partisan Sequestration Posturing

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

describe the imageSequestration is imposing what outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta calls a “meat axe” on Pentagon spending.

It is probably a meat axe long overdue. But senior Pentagon officials, military leaders and Congressional observers are concerned that sequestration – which imposes a 10 percent cut in discretionary spending across the board and even more in some cases – forces the Pentagon to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

For example, the required cuts in maintenance and training expenditures for Army brigades strike deeply at the core mission of the Army, and grant them no more favorable treatment than the Army’s dumbest line item expenditures.

Likewise, the Department of Defense blames sequestration cuts for forcing it to cancel the deployment of a carrier battle group, and will force the Army to delay scheduled combat unit rotations to Afghanistan. The burden of sequestration, as currently structured, therefore falls most severely on American servicemen and women aboard ship or in combat, who will not get relieved on schedule. These families are already facing the stresses of deployment.

With that in mind, some Republican congressmen are working on legislation that would grant the Secretary of Defense more discretionary authority to move money around within the DoD to fund core missions and defund less critical activities.

Such a measure, GOP supporters argue, would preserve the core mission and capabilities of the military while still honoring the spirit of sequestration: To slash spending and reduce the deficit.

The Obama Administration indicates that it will veto the plan.

The reason: It’s politics. When White House officials first proposed sequestration as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, and when the President signed the BCA into law, Democrats were counting on the deep cuts to defense spending to be the pain that forced Republicans to concede to tax increases, rather than entitlement reforms and spending cuts.

Any move to grant more authority to the Secretary of Defense has the effect of lessening that pain for the traditionally hawkish Republicans – and thereby weaken the Democrat bargaining position in Congress. If the Pentagon has discretion over how it executes the sequestration cuts, Republicans have that much less incentive to strike a deal favorable to Democrats – and Democrats have that much less to leverage against Republicans.

The President, therefore, is in the curious position of opposing the very measure that will enable his new Secretary of Defense to do his job – and opposing the measures that will make it possible for his troops in harms way to be relieved on schedule.

In essence, he is holding American troops in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan hostage to defend the interests of public worker unions.

Republicans are also practicing their version of gamesmanship: They know that absent substantial buy-in from congressional Democrats – who control the Senate – the measure is doomed to failure if the President vetoes it. But the bill’s supporters are planning to go forward with it anyway, to force the President and Congressional Democrats on record as opposing the relief of servicemembers in combat zones, who face longer deployments if sequestration cuts prevent the train-up of replacement brigades.

However, the GOP is not unanimous in its support of granting the executive branch additional authority. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), believes that Congress would be ceding too much of its constitutional Power of the Purse to the executive branch if a bill such as this passes.

The upshot: Congress is not willing to make the tough spending decisions. It therefore wants the Obama Administration to make them. The Obama Administration, in turn, doesn’t want to be seen making those tough decisions either.

And our troops in Afghanistan, fighting a war, and our sailors in the Persian Gulf, facing down the Iranians, are caught in the middle.


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