The Truth about Sequestration

Cato has just released a new video, titled “The Truth about Sequestration,” that tells the real story about sequestration, the automatic budget cuts required by the Budget Control Act. Many in Congress claim to abhor their creation, including many of those who voted for it, yet the members and the president haven’t done much to prevent it. Perhaps they shouldn’t do anything and let the cuts happen. In our video, my colleagues Ben Friedman and Dan Mitchell join me in explaining that, whatever its shortcomings as legislation (and there are many, as discussed below) sequestration may be the only viable way to reduce the Pentagon’s budget.

However, there’s little likelihood that sequestration will significantly reduce the defense budget long term. That’s because sequestration cuts the defense budget only in the first year. Every year after that, defense spending will increase. Spending levels will indeed be lower than the Pentagon last year expected them to be. But only in Washington is that considered a cut. So, under sequestration, instead of spending $5.7 trillion on defense over the next decade, as the FY2013 budget suggests, the government will spend about $5.2 trillion.

That $500 billion difference may not actually materialize. Congress has a few options to mitigate the effects of the initial $55 billion slice off the budget. They could reprogram funds after the sequester, change the definition of “programs, projects and activities” (the budget level at which the cuts are implemented), or take advantage of the flexibility within operations and maintenance (O&M) funds. In fact, because the Office of Management and Budget has declared that war spending is eligible to be sequestered, the total cuts to O&M can be spread out across a bigger pot of money. Beyond all that, sequestration does not affect outlays or funds already obligated, which means it will not affect existing contracts. So, the real story is that should sequestration actually happen, Congress and the Pentagon will have much more flexibility than they’re willing to admit.

Our video also highlights the fact that we spend far more on the military than is necessary. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers and pundits have coalesced around the idea that the United States is the “indispensable nation” responsible for protecting everyone from everything. Under the misapprehension that threats anywhere in the world are necessarily threatening to the United States, we have taken on the responsibility of policing the entire planet. This increases the chances that the United States will become involved in conflicts that do not engage vital U.S. interests, or that we do not fully understand, or can easily remedy. This strategic hypochondria (H/T Ted Galen Carpenter) also burden American taxpayers with additional costs that could and should be borne by others. The video includes a nifty graphic showing the expansion of NATO. We have added a host of weak or fragile countries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia (including, still, Iraq and Afghanistan), and now we are doubling down with assurances to Asian nations that we will constrain China (and implying that they need not do so).

In short, a bloated defense budget has enabled these misguided policies, encourages free-riding by our “allies” and make us less safe abroad and less free at home. Though I would have much preferred a serious strategic debate before the current fiscal crisis, and indeed called for such a thing, sequestration should help us to refocus our national security priorities. In fact, the real story is that sequestration doesn’t restrict our choices, it enables us to make better ones.

Americans shouldn’t worry that sequestration will make our defense budget too small. We account for approximately 48 percent of the world’s military spending. We will retain a margin of superiority over any conceivable combination of rivals, including China, even if our share of military spending fell to 44 or 45 percent of the world’s total.

Sequestration was no one’s first choice, but keeping our reckless spending and strategic myopia on auto pilot is worse.