Throughout much of last year, the idea that automatic deep budget cuts known as sequestration would actually go into effect seemed implausible.
After all, lawmakers only agreed to the cuts as a trigger — an idea so unpalatable that an often fractious Congress would agree to an alternative way to slash the deficit.
But with the cuts slated to go into effect in less than two weeks, it’s clear many in government — particularly the Defense Department — are concerned the looming cuts are likely and will have a devastating effect on military readiness.
“I think the original idea that this was unthinkable has now withered away,” former Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn said in a recent interview on Pentagon Solutions with Francis Rose. “And people think it’s now very ‘thinkable,’ and you’re seeing DoD start to do real planning for it.
Lynn is now the CEO of DRS Technologies.
The Defense Department has stepped up planning for the cuts, including talk of furloughing nearly all of its civilian workforce for at least one day a week for the remainder of the fiscal year. At a Senate hearing last week, Lynn’s successor Ashton Carter told lawmakers he’s all but given up hope defense cuts will be averted.
“I don’t think in anybody’s view it became … a real possibility until very recently,” Lynn said. “Even going into the debates this past New Year when we were looking not only at sequestration but the … expiration of the Bush tax cuts, I think the expectation was that Congress and the White House would come to a deal.”
‘Devastating’ combination of cuts
Among the many issues causing headaches for DoD budget planners are sequestration’s size — “it’s a very, very deep cut,” Lynn said — and the fact that it’s applied “in a single fell swoop” across all programs, projects and activities.
“It’s the combination that’s really devastating,” Lynn said.
In the event that sequestration would go into effect, some lawmakers have seized on the idea of reprogramming, which allows agencies to shift funds from one appropriated line item to another.
Currently, agencies, including the Pentagon, can only reprogram funds with the explicit authority of congressional oversight committees.
“Traditionally, that is an elaborate process, and it is done with much smaller amounts of money,” Lynn said. “You’re not talking about the tens of billions of dollars that would have to be moved in this kind of context.”
Lynn said DoD will likely consider reprogramming funds, but it will be only one budget tool at its disposal, not a panacea.
Effects won’t be immediate
The readiness issues cited by Defense leaders are “accurate,” Lynn said, but “they won’t be immediate.”
“This is going to be more of a slow-moving train wreck as opposed to an immediate crash — at least in most cases,” he added.
But while the effects of sequestration won’t be immediate, they will be long-lasting, Lynn said.
For example, the impact on troop readiness won’t just last weeks or months, he said, but years.
“These things cascade through the systems,” Lynn said. “So if people are expecting to see on March 2 a big bang, they’ll probably be disappointed. … This is something that builds to a crescendo rather than happens immediately.”
Latest in DoD budget woes
Sequestration is only the latest and, admittedly, the most destructive in a series of changes to the DoD budget.
“Each of the last three years, we’ve completely changed the Defense budget,” Lynn said. “It’s impossible for the Department of Defense to plan in that environment.”
Pentagon strategists use overarching Defense strategy to plot out the department’s budget. Among the items funded by the budget are the force structure to implement the department’s strategy and the weapons systems and training needed to support it, Lynn said.
“All of those things take multiple years to put in place,” he said. If you’re changing the whole budget line every six to 12 months, that instability in and of itself — independent of the level of spending — makes it impossible for DoD to put together a coherent program.”
Also adding to the Pentagon’s budget-planning woes is the possibility that Congress would extend the current short-term continuing resolution for the remainder of the fiscal year rather than passing a complete budget.
The problem is CRs really only make sense in the short-term, Lynn said, because they bar agencies from shifting funds around or starting new programs.
“It doesn’t make sense if this is actually going to be the year’s budget. … Having a budget with no new program starts doesn’t make sense but that’s where I think we’re headed.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.