USA Today: Manner, Not Size, of Defense Sequester is the Concern

Lawmakers, policy experts, and affected industries are righly concerned about the sequester that will hit both defense and non-defense spending across the board on January 2. On the defense side, though, a USA Today editorial expresses concern not for the cuts themselves, but for the across-the-board manner in which they are done. Here's their take:

The defense reductions would be harmful not so much for their size — about $55 billion each year for nine years — but for the way the Pentagon would be required to make them: mindlessly across the board, slashing crucial programs as well as ones that ought to be cut. The right way to make reductions this size is to phase them in, giving the Pentagon time to plan and more flexibility to choose what goes and what stays.

Here's the important thing, though: Defense spending has more than doubled since 9/11, and with the United States out of Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan in 2014, there's room for reductions. This year's military outlays are expected to reach $716 billion, up from $294 billion in 2000. As troops come home and the fighting ends, it's time to cancel the post-9/11 blank check and think seriously about how big a military the nation can afford...

Many of the same members of Congress who complain so loudly about the impending defense cuts repeatedly block the Pentagon from making smart reductions. The military suggested closing more unneeded military bases and raising the super-low premiums and copays for the Tricare health insurance program for military retirees. Congress wasn't interested, but it continues to insist on building planes, tanks and other hardware the Pentagon doesn't want.

One thing to point out is that although the sequester hits across the board for FY 2013, but for 2014-2021 it simply lowers the caps on discretionary spending, thus allowing appropriators to make decisions on where to implement the cuts. USA Today's editorial board might be fine with the sequester if the 2013 mechanism was changed.

Beyond its across-the-board nature, another concern about the sequester is that it is frontloaded. Having discretionary cuts that are phased in gradually would be economically preferable to the abrupt sequestration to help give the economic more time to recover. Gradual cuts could also give policymakers more time to evaluate all the programs in the discretionary budget to make smart decisions about where we can spend less, and even where we might want to spend more.

Certainly, there is room for defense to contribute more to deficit reduction beyond the discretionary spending caps enacted last summer, given its growth over the past decade and the drawdown of the wars that is already taking place. Recent fiscal plans -- such as those put forward by members of the Super Committee -- have put in additional cuts to defense, albeit generally more modest ones than the sequester. And groups such as the Sustainable Defense Task Force were able to find savings about equal to, if not more than, the sequester through targeted cuts to troop levels, weapon and vehicle acquisitions, the nuclear arsenal, and military compensation.

Replacing the sequester, and more broadly the fiscal cliff, does not mean that defense -- or other parts of the budget -- should get a free pass. After all, CRFB argues that waiving all required savings instead of replacing them is the worst of all scenarios.

Click here to read more about the fiscal cliff and how it would affect the economy and parts of the budget.