WASHINGTON – While Iran, Russia, and China are all pretty scary, the ominous word “sequestration” is what is keeping right-wing hawks and their friends in the defense industry up at night. After rallying their forces for most of the past year, their campaign to avoid the “specter of sequestration”, as they often refer to it, shifted into high gear on Capitol Hill this past week, as top industry executives were summoned to testify to the urgency of the threat.
At stake could be as much as US$600 billion in Pentagon funding – much of which would presumably be spent on lucrative procurement contracts for new weapons systems – over the next
10 years, as well as what the hawks see as the further erosion of US global military dominance.
“It is clear that if the process of sequestration is fully implemented,” warned three of the right’s most hawkish think tanks the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in a joint statement entitled “Defending Defense” last week, “the US military will lack adequate resources to defend the United States and its global interests”.
“The specter of sequestration threatens the US defense industrial base at a time when China, Russia, and other military competitors are ramping up their defense industries,” according to the statement, which helped raise the curtain on this week’s mantra from the military-industrial complex: hundreds of thousands of workers could lose their jobs as early as October one month before the election unless the sequestration nightmare goes away.
The sequestration specter arises from a 2011 agreement, codified in the Budget Control Act, between President Barack Obama and Republican Congressional leaders for cutting the yawning US federal deficit over the next decade.
The Act provides that if Congress cannot agree on a specific plan that would cut $1.2 trillion in the budget by the end of this year, then the cuts would take place automatically beginning in 2013, with half of the total taken from the Pentagon and the rest from non-defense programs.
The Act was designed to spur both parties to compromise, since Republicans have generally been adamantly opposed to cuts in the defense budget, while Democrats have no less vehemently tried to protect favored social, educational, and health programs from the budget axe.
A so-called super-committee of lawmakers from both parties was created to forge such a compromise, but their positions proved irreconcilable. Backed by the White House, Democrats demanded that deficit reduction be achieved, at least in part, by raising taxes on the wealthy, while Republicans rejected such an approach out of hand.
While most observers believed that a compromise would eventually be worked out, the approach of the November elections has resulted in both parties digging in, and sequestration now looms as a distinct possibility.
At $645 billion this year, the US defense budget far exceeds those of the 20 next-most-powerful countries and accounts altogether for about 40% of global military spending. Despite the lack of a peer competitor, the Pentagon’s budget has nearly doubled over the past decade.
While China’s defense budget has been rising at a faster rate in recent years, it is believed to amount to no more than a third of what Washington spends.
Nonetheless, hawks have long argued for increases in the Pentagon’s budget and last year strongly denounced Obama’s order to cut more than $450 billion in previously planned defense spending over the next decade as part of a larger strategy to reduce the deficit.
Even Pentagon chief Leon Panetta has warned that an additional $600 billion reduction resulting from sequestration would be “devastating” to Washington’s ability to protect its national interests overseas, although it remains unclear whether he sincerely believes that or whether he is using it to push the Republicans toward compromise. Some Republicans have charged that Obama himself would not be displeased if the sequestration took effect.
Given the importance of the economy and unemployment in the November election, Republicans have increasingly tried to focus attention on the possible job losses resulting from sequestration and enlisted the major arms manufacturers – which increased their spending on lobbying in Washington by an average of nearly 12% during the first quarter of this year, according to ‘Defense News’ – in their cause.
Last month, the chief executive of the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp, warned that additional cuts would be a “blunt force trauma” to the industry. He noted that his company’s workforce was already 18% smaller than three years ago due to a slowdown in the rise in the defense budget under Obama.
Earlier this week, the Aerospace Industries Association produced a study that estimated job losses due to the sequestration cuts would result in the loss of nearly 1.1 million jobs in the defense sector next year.
And on Wednesday, the hawkish chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, hosted the CEOs of four major defense contractors in a hearing designed to underline the threat of mass lay-offs, with notices to workers going out as early as October 1.
But both the administration and Congressional Democrats are insisting that the Republicans compromise on taxes. Indeed, one Democratic congressman from Georgia, Rep. Hank Johnson, noted the irony of Republicans “holding hearings to talk about how reduced government spending would hurt jobs and the economy”.
According to Politico, Johnson asked the four whether they would be personally willing to pay more taxes as part of a deal to avoid sequestration but received no answer.
Recent survey data suggest that the public generally favors the Democratic position. According to one detailed poll released here Monday by worldpublicopinion.org, a strong majority of respondents, including those from Congressional districts represented by Republicans, favor substantial cuts to the defense budget by an average of 18% from its current level.
The survey, which was carried out in April, found some partisan differences. Respondents in Republican districts on average favored cuts by 15%, while Democratic districts wanted to cut by 22%, according to the survey, which was sponsored by the Programme for Public Consultation, the Stimson Center, and the Center for Public Integrity.
Particularly remarkable was the finding that respondents living in districts benefiting from the highest level of defense-related spending were just as likely to support cuts as districts which benefited relatively little.