All you need to know are these two figures to get a grasp on what is going on:
Non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal 2013 (post-sequester) = $477 billion
Non-defense discretionary spending in fiscal 2009 = $478 billion
In other words, these terrifying cuts will take us back to the dim dark days of 2009 and still be 10 percent above the domestic discretionary spending levels when President Obama took office.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a news conference today threatening all manner of delays, airport closures, etc. (in addition to those we suffer already). Was this occurring in 2009? I don’t think so. In that case Mr. LaHood should dig out the 2009 budget and use that. He can’t because of the sequester language? He can request transfer authority from Congress, or Congress can give it to him in the continuing resolution. (This by the way is precisely why the Senate’s failure to pass a budget is so irresponsible; agencies and departments are locked into the spending allocation of the previous year.)
Really, when is enough, enough? The president, not to mention the media — that laps up the tales of woe with no critical analysis — supposes the public is easily duped. Republicans have done a poor job of explaining how insignificant are the cuts, but that is no excuse for the gamesmanship in the White House and by the media.
The defense side is much dicier because half of the sequester is falling on less than 20 percent of the budget (18.7 percent of the budget is Defense Department). In 2008 we spent $499 billion on defense. In 2008 the figure went to $557 billion. After sequester the number falls to $514. That means that the defense budget will be 3 percent higher than the 2008 level, but it hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
There are some real challenges to consider because of the means by which we contract for weapons systems and the exemptions under the sequestration (military pay, for example, is excluded). And we can’t go back to recapture items like Secretary Leon Panetta’s coast-to-coast travel bill ($860,000) that have already been paid for. Moreover, we are asking our military to do more (e.g. fight jihadist terrorists in North Africa).
Congress should therefore do one of two things: Give maximum latitude to the Defense Department to direct cuts to items like civilian staff, or do the work for them in an appropriations bill (if we could ever pass a budget) to budget sanely. Better yet it should pass a budget which goes after the real money: entitlements. In Obama terms: We are giving Warren Buffett free Medicare so our troops get substandard, old weapons.
If any area of government has reason for complaint it is the Defense Department, but the Pentagon would do much better to start coming up with a menu of options than turning around ships to catch our attention. Defense protectors claim that they have to do these sorts of stunts because, in essence, everyone else does it in government. Answers like that tempt you to throw your hands up and declare our fiscal future to be bleak.
In the meantime the media have an obligation to put these cuts in perspective and to stop screaming fire in a crowded country.