Rare Sight in Call to End Sequestration

February 2, 2018

President Donald Trump, in his first State of the Union address, called for the end of sequestration - one of MOAA's top priorities.

“Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values,” he told Congress Jan. 30. “In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”

“For this reason, I am asking the Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military,” Trump continued. The comment drew applause from both parties, a rare sight from a deeply divided Congress.

MOAA included sequestration on our list of five things we wanted the president to address in his speech. But making the request a reality will be difficult, at best.

Sequestration, the enforcement mechanism for reductions in discretionary spending, makes across-the-board cuts to programs if spending exceeds predetermined levels. It sets arbitrary spending caps on federal programs and puts America's national defense capabilities at risk.

Sequestration was a $1.2 trillion penalty included in 2011 budget negotiations, where lawmakers were tasked with coming up with a bipartisan solution to address the nation's debt. Because they were unable to come to an agreement on a combination of spending reductions and revenue increases, the prospect of meat-axe cuts to defense and non-defense programs has loomed over every federal budget ever since.

It's highly unlikely Congress will be able to fully repeal sequestration. Because the statutory caps are currently in law, any spending above those levels will be seen - at least on paper - as increases in government spending. With a recently passed tax overhaul scheduled to add $1.5 trillion to the national debt, lawmakers might have little choice but to continue deficit spending.

Rather than full repeal of sequestration, a more likely scenario would be some sort of two-year agreement to raise defense and non-defense spending levels. That deal likely will come together in the upcoming weeks, but that's not necessarily good news.

When sequestration temporarily went into effect in 2013, resulting in civilian furloughs and considerable disruptions in government operations, Congress quickly cobbled together a two-year deal to raise the budget caps.

While the move was welcomed, the way Congress paid for the increased levels was by cutting military retired pay. The move, known as COLA-minus-1, was panned by military and veterans service organizations.

MOAA did the math and calculated those cuts could cost an O-5 over $124,000 in lost retirement. A retired E-7 stood to lose over $80,000 in lost pay.

MOAA members flooded lawmakers' phones and inboxes with protests against the move, and Congress quickly repealed the provision.

Lawmakers, government officials, service leaders, and secretaries of defense have all come out against the budget caps. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis famously assailed the caps, telling lawmakers, “For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.”

But finding the political will to completely eliminate sequestration in this political environment might be a bridge too far for lawmakers.


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