Syria and the Sequester

Although the possibility of a US military strike on Syria is now in question, the possibility has also led to public statements regarding the relationship between defense priorities and the budget. Specifically, both House Armed Services Committee chair Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) have both said in recent weeks that they would oppose a strike on Syria unless the sequester was addressed.

A few weeks ago, Inhofe said that the military "has no money left" to conduct an operation in Syria, and suggested that the sequester would hollow out the military. McKeon had the following to say in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal:

I plan to ask the president, in light of the weight of his decision to intervene in Syria, for his commitment to address sequestration as part of any deal on the debt ceiling. If he makes that commitment, then he has my support. If not, I won't be able to vote to send our over-stretched and under-funded military into action. The opportunity to undo the harm of the budget sequester is unlikely to come around again.

Neither lawmaker specifically talked about offsetting sequester repeal, and McKeon did seem to imply that he would prefer the sequester be handled in a broader budget context.

There can be legitimate concern about the extent to which the sequester has affected military readiness, particularly with the across-the-board nature of the cuts in FY 2013. In 2014 and beyond, however, appropriators can allocate cuts where they choose, provided that Congress enacts appropriation bills or changes in current funding levels. A temporary continuing resolution, on the other hand, would likely continue the across-the-board nature of the FY 2013 cuts, and it increasingly appearing to be the likely outcome before October 1.

Certainly, appropriators will have to pay close attention to priorities in the defense budget as they change over time. However, trading an non-offset sequester repeal for votes on the Syria strike would be a fiscally irresponsible way to go about replacing it. Absent any new offset, not abiding by sequestration cuts -- cuts that were meant to prompt smarter deficit reduction -- would damage our fiscal credibility.

Furthermore, based on cost estimates of the type of strike that has been discussed -- maybe in the couple hundred million dollar range -- and the fact that many of the inputs involved will have already been purchased, it is very likely that the military could carry it out within their existing budget. Even if policymakers determined that supplemental spending would be necessary, it would not warrant the extra $54 billion that would come from exempting defense from the sequester in 2014. Thus, it would not be necessary to repeal the sequester simply to carry out the strike. Based on the grading scale in our most recent paper, repealing the sequester without offsets would be a flat-out F.

Lawmakers should resist any temptation to use Syria as an excuse to replace the sequester without any offsets. Rather, policymakers should use the upcoming negotiations over the budget to replace the sequester, while fully offestting its cost, and at the same time achieve meaningful long term deficit reduction.