On Sunday’s broadcast of “Meet the Press,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney discussed a subject that may well emerge as an important issue in the fall campaign. He said, “This sequestration idea of the White House, which is cutting our defense, I think, is an extraordinary miscalculation. … I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose it. I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it.”
There are three important things to be noted about this statement:
- It is remarkably divorced from the legislative history that resulted in this legislation becoming law.
- It appears that the former Massachusetts governor is attempting to pick a fight with President Barack Obama over the negative consequences that sequestration will have on defense when there is in fact no apparent disagreement between the two candidates on that issue.
- The statement by Gov. Romney appears totally oblivious to the devastating cuts that sequestration will force on vital functions of government outside the Defense Department, including many that are crucial to national security.
So let’s examine each of these key aspects of Gov. Romney’s statement about sequestration, beginning with the legislative history.
Neither President Obama nor House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) promoted sequestration as a constructive means of tackling the nation’s fiscal problems. Neither advocated its inclusion in the debt ceiling necessary to avoid default on our nation’s debt. Neither saw sequestration as Plan A or Plan B or even Plan C. It was Plan H or I—yet the only one that the Tea Party faction of the House Republican Conference would accept in return for allowing an 11th hour deal to avoid default.
President Obama had made his position clear from the outset. In April 2011 spokesperson Jay Carney reiterated the president’s demand that:
Congress has to vote to raise the ceiling on our debt. That’s an imperative that shouldn’t be linked or held hostage to any other action because the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling — those consequences would be catastrophic to the American economy, to the global economy and to America’s creditworthiness internationally.
Only a few weeks later Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, stated that wrapping spending cuts into the debt limit would be, “quite insane.”
On May 16, 2011 the U.S. Treasury Department went into “technical default,” but Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced that he would use “extraordinary means” to enable the government to pay its bills for another 10 weeks. The secretary made it clear, however, that the United States would be in true default by August 1. House Republicans responded on May 31 by bringing a “clean” version of the debt limit extension to the House Floor and defeating it with every member of the House Republican Conference voting “no.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), who managed the legislation, explained that the bill allowed, “The House to reject a clean increase in the debt limit.” He further stated, “Let me be clear: I do not support and will not vote for a debt limit increase that does not contain significant spending cuts and budgetary reforms.”
Following that vote Business Insider commented, “We’re now in uncharted debt ceiling territory, as it’s guaranteed that for the first time, the ability of the nation to borrow further will be contingent on some kind of action on spending.”
For the next two months Speaker Boehner made repeated trips to the White House and White House staff spent endless hours on Capitol Hill trying to find common ground. As The New York Times detailed in a careful and lengthy examination of those negotiations, printed last March, Speaker Boehner and the White House came close to an agreement on several occasions—only to find that the speaker could not get the support within this own party to secure passage: “During one of a series of tense White House meetings [House Majority leader Eric] Cantor…directly contradict(ed) the speaker in front of the president. He insisted that the caucus would not accept the kind of sweeping deal that both leaders wanted.”
Within literal hours of the scheduled default, an agreement was reached containing the across-the-board sequester cuts but at a level about one third the size of the first year cuts demanded by the powerful Republican Study Committee. Nonetheless, more than 70 percent of House Republicans joined by slightly fewer than half of House Democrats passed the measure.
After the vote, Freedom Works, a central organ of the Tea Party movement, in a piece called “The Tea Party Stood Strong During Debt-Ceiling Debate,” claimed:
The debt ceiling deal surely doesn’t go far enough to curtail government spending but we have reasons to be optimistic. Just a couple months ago, President Obama was expecting to get a simple debt ceiling increase with no strings attached which had been the standard procedure in Washington for some time. We didn’t let that happen. We stood by our principles by calling out Speaker Boehner when he was wrong. The Tea Party drove the debt-ceiling debate. Even though we face a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, the Tea Party was a central player who managed to control the narrative. Even Sen. McConnell (R-Ky.) admits that Congress wouldn’t have had such a debt-ceiling debate without the Tea Party. Now it’s time to push for real spending cuts while helping to elect fiscal conservatives who can make it happen.
Clearly, House Republicans used the debt ceiling to force the issue of budget cuts upon the rest of Congress and President Obama.
Defense cuts deconstructed
Gov. Romney’s Meet the Press comments also are off base with respect to the White House using sequestration as a means of cutting defense spending. The president and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta worked closely last fall with the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to fashion a 10-year plan for defense spending that was responsible from the standpoint of national security and also from the standpoint of fiscal discipline. It was that plan—a plan supported by the uniformed leaders of our military—that was in the budget that President Obama sent to the Congress last February. The sequestration language inserted into the debt ceiling would impose deep cuts below the levels requested by the president, cuts which Secretary Panetta stated would threaten “the programs critical to our nation’s security.” Panetta called sequestration a “meat axe.”
The Obama campaign website reiterates what administration officials have said all along:
The reductions would indiscriminately slash the Pentagon’s funding by nearly 20% over the next decade, threatening to undermine America’s military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted that sequestration would drastically shrink the military and diminish its ability to keep us safe.
It was not the Obama administration that threatened the nation with default if the debt ceiling legislation was not expanded to include sequestration. Those provisions made unreasonable and unwise cuts in both defense and nondefense programs and were not only demanded as the price for preventing national bankruptcy but were supported by 72 percent of the House Republican Conference—including Gov. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI—when the legislation was brought to the House floor. Most of the remaining 28 percent opposed the legislation because they either didn’t believe default to be problematic or they didn’t believe the sequestration cuts were deep enough.
Sequestration problems that Gov. Romney has overlooked
But what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Gov. Romney’s statement on Sunday is the total disregard it exhibits toward the across-the-board cuts it levels at vital nondefense government functions, including those which are critical to national security. It is clearly time for Gov. Romney and his team to recognize that national security does not end at the edge of the Pentagon parking lot.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is one good example. Its $8.2 billion budget currently supports 34,000 agents, analysts, technicians, and other staff. Sequestration will slash more than $700 million from that budget, but the impact on personnel will be proportionately much bigger. This is for three reasons. First since sequestration doesn’t begin until three months into the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2012 the 9 percent that sequestration takes from the annual budget works out to a 12 percent cut over the 9-month period in which sequestration will be applied in the coming fiscal year.
Further, while the vast majority of the FBI budget goes to pay the salaries of agents and other employees a very large share of the remainder goes to pay for the office space they occupy. For the most part that space is obtained through long-term leases—leases that the Bureau would be required to pay large penalties to break. If the Bureau can’t reduce its expenditure for leases it will have to cut other areas of its budget (personnel) more deeply.
Finally, no one knows exactly what costs will be incurred in furloughing or simply terminating agents and other staff. Terminations involve very expensive one-time payments and while mass furloughs are less expensive, they are not free and whatever they cost will increase the number of weeks and days Bureau employees will be required to be furloughed.
Altogether, the FBI and other agencies with budgets made up mostly of salaries and office space are likely to be forced to reduce personnel by 14 percent to 18 percent or even more. That would mean the Bureau would be operating over the course of an average week next year with about 4,500 to 6,000 fewer people than are on the job now. That has serious implications for counterterrorism operations, counterintelligence activities, and normal law enforcement. It also puts into question the ability of the FBI to maintain the various databases that it has been able to provide as a resource to local law enforcement, the airline industry, and gun dealers
The problems that would be faced by the FBI would be replicated in the Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Marshalls, the U.S. Attorneys, the court system itself, and numerous other agencies that play critical roles in insuring that
- Dangerous materials don’t enter the country
- Dangerous people inside our nation are closely monitored
- Dangerous people operating outside the country don’t have the resources, contacts, or communications ability to commit acts against U.S. interests
But there is much more to be worried about than the threat from foreign adversaries. Across-the-board cuts would have serious implications for our national transportation system. As I have pointed out elsewhere it would mean the release of 2,000 or so air traffic controllers and the possible closing of 100 or more air traffic control towers. It would mean dramatic reductions in meat and poultry inspections, in our ability to track and forecast the course and intensity of hurricanes, our ability to expeditiously review and approve new drugs and medications, our capacity to operate our National Parks, and our ability to fight wild fires.
None of these impairments seem to have occurred to Gov. Romney, but they are very real possibilities facing the American people on January 2, 2013.
Sequestration is a Republican problem
The Republican candidate for president does deserve credit for speaking out on the potential problems that this mindless method of deficit reduction will inflict on the defense establishment. He is correct to call the nation’s attention to it. But his problem in solving the sequestration issue is not with the President Obama but with the extremists in his own party that created it in the first place. He should call on those members to recognize the potential damage their policies will cause and to stay in Washington this month to reach an agreement that will at least postpone the deadline so that a new Congress has a chance to find a better means of reducing the deficit.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.