One of the fundamental obligations for the federal government is to provide an adequate national defense. Why, then, can’t Congress move beyond sequestration and provide the Pentagon with the flexibility it needs in carrying out its budget reductions?
Congress certainly needs to. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spelled out the need in a recent letter to congressional leaders on defense policy, offering straightforward, practical arguments.
If the federal government continues to use sequestration as its budget approach for the Pentagon, Hagel wrote, next year the Defense Department will need to cut $52 billion, not in targeted reductions, but in harmful, across-the-board cuts.
“The department will have to make sharp cuts with far-reaching consequences,” he wrote, “including limiting combat power, reducing readiness and undermining the national security interests of the United States.”
Congress has rightly allowed common-sense flexibility on some public health and public safety issues so that air traffic control service and food safety inspections could be maintained. Yet when it comes to the nation’s defense, federal lawmakers — struggling without success to tackle the big issues, as usual — continue to force the military into nonsensical, across-the-board cuts.
Our point isn’t that the defense budget should be spared from cuts. Rather, the need is to allow discretion so that cuts can be directed toward lower- priority items. Defense dollars should be allocated not by the crude sequestration approach but by sound strategy.
Without question, there is room for reductions in defense spending. Just the other day Al Kamen, a Washington Post reporter who has covered the federal bureaucracy for years, pointed to a memo circulating in the federal government’s Defense Information Systems Agency, which has a $2 billion annual budget.
The memo stated that the agency currently has a lot of unspent funds, and it directed managers to spend their budgeted funds before the fiscal year runs out. “Our available funding balances remain large in all appropriations,” the memo said. “It is critical in our efforts to [spend] 100 percent of our available resources this fiscal year.”
True, cuts in one $2 billion agency won’t come close to the overall reductions, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, that the Pentagon will need to meet in upcoming years.
Still, military leaders need to send the message loud and clear that in the new fiscal environment, the lazy bureaucratic mind-set of “spend it or lose it” is especially irresponsible.
The Pentagon needs to do its part in carrying out budget discipline in a responsible way — and so does Congress.