Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, left, testifies before the Senate Armed Service Committee Wednesday.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, left, testifies before the Senate Armed Service Committee Wednesday. Kevin Wolf/AP

Joint Chiefs Warn Against Sequestration, Again

Like a tragic Greek chorus, the Joint Chiefs again warned of the dire consequences of sequestration, although Congress is unlikely to act.

The U.S. military’s top officers testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the mandatory spending caps known as sequestration are threatening national security -- although Congress is unlikely to do anything about it.

On Monday, the Obama administration is expected to request a $585 billion Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2016, exceeding the budget caps by $34 billion in 2016 and $150 billion over the next five years. The request includes $534 billion for the base budget, which would be the largest in history. The Budget Control Act of 2011 set caps on defense spending next year at $500 billion.

“Such warnings from our senior military and national security leaders have become frustratingly familiar to many of us,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said at the Wednesday committee hearing. “Despite an accumulating array of complex threats to our national interests … we are on track to cut $1 trillion from America’s defense budget by 2021.

“And yet, here we go again: If we in Congress do not act, sequestration will return in full in Fiscal Year 2016 … America’s national defense can no longer be held hostage to domestic political disputes totally separated from the reality of the threats we face.”

The Joint Chiefs argued that sequestration is too blunt an object that has begin to cut into bone -- readiness and modernization – and has prevented the kind of stability necessary to strategic planning, even for unexpected contingencies. Yet while the new Republican majority in Congress is viewed as more supportive of repealing sequestration, that doesn’t mean the legislative body is any more likely to grant the Pentagon substantial relief from sequestration.

“They’re going back to their previous habit of submitting a budget far above budget caps and basically crossing their fingers magic will happen and Congress will raise budget caps all the way to level they’re requesting,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “That’s not likely to happen.”

After all, sequestration was intended to force lawmakers to come to a deal on a battle over taxes and entitlements and raising the debt ceiling, but was considered so draconian as to be an empty threat. When such a deal wasn’t reached, the across-the-board spending cuts went into effect in March of 2013, forcing the Defense Department to quickly find billions in cost reductions. At the end of 2013, Congress granted the Pentagon some $30 billion in relief in fiscal year 2014 and 2015, but the caps are due to return in October without congressional action, and the same issues at the heart of the budget debate have yet to be resolved.

“It was designed to be so stupid and unacceptable that it would never go into place,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said. “The sequester is like invading Brazil after Pearl Harbor -- it’s a vigorous reaction, but it’s the wrong target.”

The president and Pentagon may be gambling on the pressure from a slew of security crises that have erupted across the globe, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the bloody rise of the Islamic State, to force lawmakers into action. But many of these threats are addressed by the Pentagon’s war fighting fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations request, or OCO, which is not subject to the budget caps. The president is expected to ask for $50.9 billion for OCO this year. Still, King told Defense One that the past year’s flare-ups seems to have finally communicated to lawmakers the more tangible, immediate impacts of sequestration.

"Americans' lives are being put at risk … that should be the headline,” King said.

But no lawmaker presented a path toward an agreement that would lift sequestration, and both members of Congress and the White House have pointed fingers at each other.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the Joint Chiefs whether a plan for sequester relief had been part of their discussions with the White House on this year’s budget. They said no.

"I don’t mean to just beat up on the president -- this applies to us too, we’re the ones who created this mess," Graham said.

McCain said after the hearing that Obama does not have veto power over the budget and expressed confidence lawmakers could come to an agreement. “The dynamic has changed dramatically since sequestration was enacted -- look at the map of the world.” But he deferred questions on what the path forward might be to the Budget Committee.

On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he is recommending to the chambers’ Budget committees that they lift the budget caps. “I think it’s important for all of us to have a good foundation of the threat environment … and then we can evaluate the president’s budget proposal on how well it meets those things we’ve been hearing about,” he said.

 “It’s like a lot of things, ‘Tell me what can get 218 votes in the House, 50 or 60 votes in the Senate and then a presidential signature.' At the end of the day, beyond just a budget resolution, that’s what really matters, and that’s what’s challenging.”

No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving today.
Ret. Gen. James Mattis

Many in the GOP -- especially potential presidential candidates in 2016 -- have used these foreign policy challenges to slam the Obama administration’s broader foreign policy strategy, arguing that the defense budget should be increased, not reduced.

During the hearing, military officials rattled off statistics that indicate the services have, by several measures, reached new lows: An Air Force whose fleet is as small and old as it’s ever been. An Army at its lowest troop levels in decades.

But the Defense Department has also pleaded with Congress to help them find efficiencies and savings in the areas of acquisition reform and base infrastructure, as well as the budget item eating up the most cost -- military compensation, particularly health care benefits. On Thursday, a congressionally mandated commission formed to study potential reforms to military compensation is expected to release its findings. Congress has largely resisted such reforms, unwilling to expend the political capital of threatening lucrative defense contracts and jobs in home districts and “not keeping faith with our troops.”

But as retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command James Mattis put it Tuesday in a quote referenced several times at the hearing: “No nation in history has maintained its military power if it failed to keep its fiscal house in order. How do you urgently halt the damage caused by sequestration? No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving today.”

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