Pentagon officials aren’t alone in their concern about the budget sequester that would go into effect if the super committee fails. Budget experts from every side of the defense cuts debate agree that across-the-board cuts will not make for an effective builddown.
But even if the supercommittee fails, the sequester may never happen.
First, consider the fact that the trigger wouldn’t kick in until January 2013, more than one year after the deadline for the super committee’s deficit reduction plan. A lot can happen in a year, especially an election year. In fact, according to Gordon Adams, election politics are a driving force behind the debt deal:
The purpose of this deal is not to set a ten-year timeline for defense or anything else. The purpose of this deal is to get to the first Tuesday of November 2012. And after the dust settles in 2012, because the sequester doesn’t happen until January 2013, then we’re going to see what the real deal is going to be.
Dr. Alice Rivlin agrees that the sequester cuts are far from guaranteed, even if the super committee fails. As she said, “[The sequester provision] can be overridden. I mean, it’s a law. Another law can be passed.”
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that we avoided or minimized sequestration through new legislation and other techniques. In fact, in four out of the five sequesters that have ever occurred, the sequestered amount was either significantly reduced or canceled altogether. The CRS Report “Budget Sequesters: A Brief Review” explains: “Except for 1986, deficit target savings subsequently were rescinded by a budget agreement (FY1988) or were reduced by a later law (to $4.55 billion for FY1990).” The FY1991 international affairs sequester was caused by a drafting error, later corrected, in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act; the FY1991 sequester of domestic spending was so small as to be inconsequential (0.0013%, for a total of $1.4 million in savings.)
From FY1992 to 2002, Congress circumvented the trigger several times by revising the discretionary caps and through supplemental appropriations.
Instead of worrying about cuts that seem unlikely to materialize, it makes sense to start thinking about the smart way to manage the defense builddown.