January 17, 2012

Another year of living dangerously

Republicans and Democrats returning to Congress this month are setting up a months-long game of strategic chicken over the potential threats to the future of DoD’s budget.

Although we may see more warnings about the dangers of sequestration, just as we saw in the House last year, lawmakers probably won’t act seriously until after Election Day – and may not even do anything until the new Congress is seated next year.

Both sides’ basic strategy is to win big in November, assume its man will be in the White House and that it will have enough members to undo the $500 billion in reduced budget growth set to take effect Jan 2 next year. Even if that means undoing the lockup after it takes effect.

But budget expert Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security said Tuesday not to be too sanguine about Congress inevitably saving DoD from sequestration.

“I think only a fool would bet against Congress not doing something that it doesn’t want to do because of political inertia – in other words, Congress could do something it doesn’t want it do because political dysfunction has become so engrained in the culture. I wouldn’t discount the possibly that sequestration could happen.”

If President Obama is re-elected but Republicans keep or increase their power in Congress, today’s deadlock era could continue into Obama’s second term. If he maintains his promise to veto legislation getting DoD out of jail free, the guillotine could fall. How could Congress let it happen? Although DoD leaders and congressional defense advocates do summersaults trying to explain how horrible sequestration would be, many people have tuned out.

“Very few people in Congress are worried about this,” Sharp said. Many lawmakers and interest groups have a sense that sequestration will happen, and if it did, it won’t be the end of the world, he said.

Defense advocates, however, say it would be a world-ender. Lawmakers from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon to Senate Armed Services Committee members Sen. Joe Lieberman, Kelly Ayotte and others all want Congress to take up their plans to save the Pentagon. If history is any guide, Democrats and Republicans will spend most of the year blocking each other and the net result will be zero.

(The words of Maine Sen. Susan Collins come floating back: “Remember that song, ‘I’ve got high hopes?’ Well I don’t,” she quipped.)

Sharp said he believes the likeliest time for Congress to actually attempt to avert sequestration would be in its lame duck session, after the election, or even after sequestration had actually taken effect. If it happened after the fact, the Pentagon could just tiptoe along for a few days, as it has when Congress has gone right to the wire in passing wartime supplemental funding bills.

That might require Congress to give the Pentagon the authority to reprogram money – which it usually does – but this sequestration problem raises the stakes. As we’ve seen, DoD does not want anyone to think for a second it can seriously contemplate life after sequestration – that’s why it is only planning for $487 billion in growth reductions.

(“As soon as you advertise the fact that you can do something, that becomes the baseline and people start pushing to go further,” Sharp said.)

Asking for reprogramming authority too early might send the message DoD had actually been looking at what to do under sequestration and had a plan for how to reprioritize its budgets – which it almost certainly does. So the Pentagon might wait ask Congress for clearance on money-shifting “right up until sequestration ‘D-Day,’” Sharp said, and with the understanding that it would only deal with a few days’ worth of lockup because Congress was coming to its rescue.

In effect, if one party or the other took enough control and agreed to come to the Pentagon’s rescue, DoD and congressional leaders might need to quietly plan how they’d get through a few days of sequestration, much as the crew of a ship could need to plot how it was going to get through a storm.

All or none of this could be what actually ends up happening, but in one sense the damage is already done: No one whose livelihood depends on the Defense Department – from service members to civilian workers to contractors big and small – knows how it will play out. Almost everyone agrees that uncertainty is bad for business, and now the military-industrial-congressional complex could spend another year hunkering down against a blow that may or may not actually fall.