The last sequester hurt military preparedness. Republicans can avoid repeating that mistake.
President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy might have pulled themselves out of the debt-ceiling quagmire, but now the real work begins to ensure our military will emerge from the standoff unscathed.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act includes a mechanism that holds defense spending hostage to the passage of all 11 other appropriations bills. Unless Congress enacts all of them or passes a full-year continuing resolution, the agreement subjects the military to a 1% cut below 2023 spending levels. After accounting for inflation, this snap-back sequestration mechanism would be about a 6% cut to the military.
Passing appropriations bills may not seem like a heavy lift, but the last time Congress passed all 12 appropriation bills was 1996. Congress has relied on the annual crutch of continuing resolutions to keep the government funded; over the past 13 years the Defense Department has operated under a continuing resolution 12 times. This inefficient use of taxpayer dollars inevitably results in weapons programs being delayed or denied while diverting the Pentagon’s attention from making our military more lethal. Under a continuing resolution the Pentagon is bound by the previous fiscal year spending levels and can’t start new programs or significantly adjust funding to meet changing needs.
So while Washington has avoided a fiscal crisis, it is on the cusp of inviting a geopolitical crisis: The debt deal’s two-year time frame overlaps with the window that Xi Jinping has set for China’s military to prepare for an annexation of Taiwan.
History is repeating itself. A little more than a decade ago, a Republican House majority tried to reduce federal spending by delivering a budget control act that capped spending for eight years and included a sequester mechanism that would punish the defense budget. We were told then that the sequester would never happen as it would impose draconian cuts on the military that no one would dare stomach.
But it did happen. The military lost a decade of modernization, giving up our margin of safety over China. Military readiness suffered, resulting in degraded deterrence and tragic loss of life owing to insufficient training and poorly maintained platforms. That national defense depends on funding the Environmental Protection Agency or congressional office supplies defies common sense.
Sequestration 2.0 would rapidly erode America’s position in the world. Today’s stakes are higher because the threats are greater.
Still suffering from the 2011 sequestration hangover, the U.S. military has struggled to reconstitute itself to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The Pentagon is woefully behind in generating the capital necessary to upgrade military platforms and integrate new technology into the force. The war in Ukraine has exposed the shallow capacity of the defense industrial base and the dramatic need to recapitalize defense manufacturing. Combined with ill-defined and underdeveloped operational concepts for how our military ought to fight the People’s Liberation Army, these realities have sowed doubt about whether the U.S. can win a fight in the Indo-Pacific.
As the U.S. dithers with defense spending that barely keeps pace with inflation, the PLA’s budget has nearly doubled in the past decade as China has undertaken an unparalleled modernization program. The prospect of Chinese military supremacy is real.
To avoid Sequestration 2.0, Congress needs to take two concrete steps before the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1. First, it should immediately pass a defense appropriation bill. That will demonstrate to adversaries that fiscal debates won’t hamper U.S. military strength. Second, lawmakers should pass a defense supplemental bill—a measure not prohibited under the debt-ceiling deal—that funds the urgent requirements to defend Taiwan and provides sorely needed defense-industrial base upgrades ranging from munitions to shipbuilding. Congress added nearly $70 billion to the Pentagon over the last two fiscal years to begin addressing these needs; it should do the same this year.
The Chinese Communist Party is pressing forward to replace the U.S. as the dominant military power in the Indo-Pacific. Now is not the time to retreat from the competition because Congress failed to agree on how much it ought to spend to keep its lights on.
Mr. Zakheim is director of the Ronald Reagan Institute, a former general counsel for the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission.
Appeared in the June 5, 2023, print edition as ‘The Debt Deal’s Defense Threat’.