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Congressional Budgeting & Sequestration
President John F. Kennedy once said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.” Nowhere is ground truth to the president’s simple but profound statement more visible than in the Pentagon’s $716 billion fiscal 2012 budget. But despite America’s seemingly unlimited willingness to fund historically huge military expenditures, on January 2, 2013 a potentially nightmarish Congressional budget scenario will commence which represents a painful albeit necessary budgetary move—a ‘penalty’ known simply as sequestration.
Poised like French Revolutionary Robespierre and his guillotine over the Pentagon and an untold number of federal agencies, sequestration will cut a combined trillion dollars from the budgets of the Pentagon and collection of other federal agencies (Eoyang, 2012). With regard to how Congressional agenda setting has changed over time with respect to the U.S. budget, a comparison of historical agency Congressional budgetary appropriations follows accompanied by analysis of the social and political consequences of sequestration.
In the United States Federal Government, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches have unique and specific policy making authority within their clearly defined roles. In the case of appropriating public money, budgetary policy creation and execution fall squarely on Congress for all agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD) (Kraft & Furlong, 2010, 38).
In 2011, Congress faced the looming threat of a government shutdown without an approved fiscal 2012 budget. In response, President Barrack Obama signed into law The Budget Control Act creating a special Congressional ‘supercommittee’ comprised of six Democrats and six Republicans whose mandate was to create a plan that significantly reduced the deficit. The mandate of this supercommittee was clear: develop legislation to achieve necessary deficit reductions to present on 23 November 2011 and implement 15 January 2012. These dates came and went without a joint legislative plan (de Larrinaga, 2011).
In a deal designed to force the president and Congress to work together in FY12 to design a bi-partisan way ahead to reduce deficits and ultimately the national debt, Congress agreed to sequestration and the legislative equivalent of a loaded gun was placed at the temples of our executive and legislative branch heads. By its definition, sequestration amounts to automatic cuts designed to indiscriminately do what Congress and the president have again failed to do which is agree upon a budget that reduces deficit spending (Eoyang, 2012).
The concept of sequestration—an enforcement tool used to effect largely across the board reductions in discretionary spending for an entire year—is no stranger to Washington. In 1985, those old enough to remember recall the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 also more commonly called the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Despite the fact that sequestration has not occurred in the United States since the early 1990’s, the Pentagon finds itself in the line of fire with regard to sequestration in a way not yet enacted in the past and this arbitrary targeting of defense budgets in such a disproportionate way suggests defense cuts amount to little more than painful collateral damage than a shift in fundamental Congressional policy (Micklethwait, 2012). Sequestration happens under a broader piece of 2010 legislation known as PAYGO in which the office of management and budget tracks costs and savings associated with enacted legislation. When net costs exceed net savings, sequestration kicks in (Spar, 2012).
The real point in Congress’s action is focused more on bringing attention to the need for correcting runaway spending and soaring entitlement programs that threaten to bury America’s next generations if not corrected. Socially speaking, elderly care and community sustainment or ‘livability’ remain important concerns of our federal government (Kraft & Furlong, 2010, 10). As such, a myriad of sequestration ‘exemptions’ exist to ensure the status quo is maintained for the nation’s poor, elderly, fixed income social security recipients, disabled veterans, Medicaid users, etc. Considering the broader implications for targeting defense spending in such an unbridled way during a time when Congressional majorities and the president’s political party affiliation both match, sequestration has a substantive political context when considering protective wall placed around social entitlement programs if sequestration is indeed initiated by statutory triggers.
What's the solution? Well for starters, U.S. legislators need to come together (and FAST) to exercise the baseline tenet of art of politics: compromise. Next, Congress needs to clear the agenda and reset its categorization of what is important and what is urgent, then tackle urgent matters first. Otherwise, mandatory penalties such as sequestration will continue to replace human interaction, decision making, and compromise by quality leadership Americans expect from their elected officials.
De Larrinaga, Nicholas (2011). Budget cut supercommittee admits defeat. IHS Global Limited, Jane's Defence Industry. retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www4.janes.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/subscribe/jdin/doc_view.jsp
Eoyang, M., & Bennett, M. (2012, July 11). Sequester hovers like a guillotine. Politico. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0712/78406.html
Kraft, M. E. & Furlong, S. R. (2010). Public policy: Politics, analysis, and alternatives (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Micklethwait, J. (2012, July 7). Fear of sequestration Collateral damage The Pentagon has become a hostage in the war over the deficit. The Economist, p. World Politics: U.S. section.
Spar, K. (2012). Budget “Sequestration” and Selected Program Exemptions and Special Rules. Congressional Research Service, 1(April 2012), 1-6. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42050.pdf