Defense Secretary Panetta often confronts the question of whether or not to plan for sequester, including in many of his recent appearances on the Hill. His answers started out as simple as “not at all,” but the House Budget Committee elicited a little more elaboration.
“It’s a law that doesn’t require a hell of a lot of planning because it’s so blind minded, it provides a formula that cuts defense across the board.”
The rationale for why sequester doesn’t require much planning is deeply rooted in the Pentagon’s perspective on how it would work. As Air Force Comptroller Jamie Morin said in comments at Stimson last week:
“I just have to apply the law. That’s how blunt this is, the Comptroller is basically on the sidelines, I’m a calculator.”
Some have questioned whether the sequester has to be applied in the manner Secretary Panetta and Dr. Morin described. In response to that question from Senator Thune, the defense Comptroller, Robert Hale, seemed to provide a little wiggle room, although he went out of his way to emphasize it would still be bad:
"MR. HALE: We're trying to work with OMB to understand [how sequester would be applied]. This is an arcane law. It goes back to the 1985 Budget Impoundment and Control Act. Our lawyers believe that it would be at that low level of detail that was in that letter. I think that we need to work with the OMB lawyers to see exactly what would be the case.
"But make no mistake, I don't think anybody questions that at the account level -- Army O&M, Navy shipbuilding -- that would have to be equal in percentage terms. And I think that fits the meat ax description pretty well, if you have to do it every account by the same percent.
"So this is a bad idea. It's bad policy. And I really hope that the Congress will take the steps to detrigger it."
Mr. Hale is right that how sequester is enforced is dictated by arcane law with little precedence of how to apply it and no precedence of how to apply this unique form of sequester. Plus defense officials have a political incentive to insist they have no control in order to galvanize Congress to strike a deal now. Still, we have opined that the narrow technical interpretation is exactly how sequester would have to be applied, and there are very limited ways to turn it off—all requiring Congressional action. Sequester will be waived or at least severely modified but it will be after a public discourse and with Congressional consent.