July 30, 2012

Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon, a Republican who represents California’s 25th District, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Only a handful of legislative days remain to resolve the devastating cuts to our military, known as sequestration, before the campaign trail becomes the sole focus of political activity.

The false notion persists that the deadline is Jan. 2, when the Office of Management and Budget is charged with making arbitrary, across-the-board cuts to every part of the military. But federal law requires that companies give their employees at least 60 days’ warning when it is “reasonably foreseeable” that cuts could lead to layoffs. The required notification for cuts to the federal workforce is as much as 105 days, and similar standards apply to troops who will be involuntarily separated. That means, barring any guidance from the White House or the resolution of sequestration, hundreds of thousands of Americans, including those fighting our wars, should find pink slips in their mailboxes only a few weeks before Election Day.

The consequences of all this have been well reported. Sequestration was meant to be the “poison pill” that would guarantee that all parties came to the negotiating table.  Obviously, it didn’t work. I am among those who voted for the Budget Control Act and, given its unintended consequences, I am obligated to resolve the crisis it has created.

Even though President Obama signed the Budget Control Act into law and insisted on the sequester so another debt-limit increase didn’t materialize before the election, it doesn’t appear that he shares the same commitment to resolution. The only conceivable reason for him to perpetuate this uncertainty is to secure a domestic agenda that has repeatedly been rejected by the American people.

He should end the uncertainty, speak truthfully about the consequences and bring Senate Democrats to the table with a solution. Fundamentally, his choice is to treat our troops as heroes or use them as leverage.

This week, when the president’s budget director, Jeffrey Zients, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee, Republicans will continue to press the president to pursue this approach. This is a chance for Zients to dispel uncertainty and explain how Obama intends to implement these arbitrary cuts.

I fear, however, that he will present no new information and will use the hearing to continue the president’s brinkmanship approach, insisting on the wholesale adoption of the Obama budget plan and dismissing all other options. In a recent op-ed, Zients explained this “balanced” approach to finding the $1.2 trillion in savings necessary to resolve sequestration; he claimed that his plan would reduce the deficit by more than $4 trillion by proposing $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue. The rationale for this approach is that after 10 years of war, we need to continue making new investments in domestic programs before we can reset our forces.

But the numbers don’t hold up. Zients arrives at his $2.50-to-$1 ratio by a series of budget gimmicks, claiming spending reductions that are actually tax increases and double-counting spending reductions that are already in law. Most concerning, Zients claims $848 billion in “savings” by counting funds that were never requested in the first place.

House Republicans, acting responsibly, have passed a plan that replaces the first year of cuts to military and domestic spending through reforms to entitlement programs. If Democrats still find that unacceptable, I hope they can at least use it as the basis for a compromise.

That path involves using spending cuts and reforms that can attract bipartisan support in place of the impending cuts to our military. To date, the president has been unwilling to embrace this approach; such a plan would make the bipartisan savings unavailable to reduce the price tag of his ambitious slate of post-election spending.

There is no reason that such a compromise can’t be reached in September or October. It might make larger agreements on taxes and domestic spending more difficult, but it would prioritize our obligation to national security and the men and women who provide it.

In the meantime, the president and Senate Democrats’ inaction is doing damage. I fear the assessment one of our senior military leaders expressed privately is spot-on: America’s inability to govern ourselves past sequestration plays directly into the hands of those who spread a narrative of American decline and, ultimately, would thrust us into a more dangerous world.

If the United States faced an external enemy who threatened to do this kind of damage to our national security, the president would have the primary obligation to resolve it.  To avert these cuts is to intimidate our enemies, reassure our allies and keep faith with those who have sacrificed so much for so long. The commander in chief must act.