By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — For people (like me) who worry that the U.S. government is becoming dysfunctional, it’s worth studying the subtle and largely hidden effects of sequestration on the U.S. military and other agencies. What’s happening is the slow-motion decay of programs and readiness, which should scare the heck out of most citizens.
Sequestration, you will remember, was the meat-ax approach to budget cutting whose consequences were thought to be so capricious and damaging that Congress would have to come up with a more rational alternative. Congress instead chose the path of least resistance — which was doing nothing — so the automatic, across-the-board cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act took effect in March.
The conventional wisdom now seems to be that sequestration isn’t as bad as people expected, and that the Obama administration cried “wolf!” unnecessarily. Sorry, but the wolf is here all right; he’s just eating the seed corn stored out of sight in the warehouse, as opposed to the food on the table. Officials at different agencies provide a sense of what’s at risk.
Let’s start with effects on the military — not because the Pentagon deserves any special budget breaks but because the consequences are easy to understand. A simple way to think about it is that sequestration is preserving what’s politically popular — soldiers’ pay, veterans’ benefits, military bases and the like — and cutting things such as training that the politicians care little about. The effect, a few years from now, will be degraded performance.
The Air Force has grounded 13 fighter squadrons, or about one-third of its total. That amounts to about 250 planes. The danger isn’t that we’ll be defenseless to a foreign attack but that pilots who don’t fly and mechanics who don’t fix engines will lose their edge — or maybe quit and work for the commercial airlines. The Air Force is canceling for the rest of the year its big “Red Flag” combat training exercises, along with courses at the Air Force Weapons School.
“We are not as capable as we historically have been at handling a pop-up contingency,” says an Air Force spokesman.
The Army is sharply cutting training above the basic squad and platoon level. All but one of the Combat Training Center rotations scheduled for brigades this fiscal year have been canceled. Depot maintenance has been halted for the rest of the fiscal year, meaning that six divisions won’t have the necessary equipment readiness. The Army will cut 37,000 flying hours from its aviation training, creating a shortfall of 500 pilots by the end of the fiscal year.
“Should a contingency arise, there may not be enough time to avoid sending forces into harm’s way unprepared,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told Congress in February.
The Navy reports that by the end of this fiscal year, two-thirds of its non-deployed ships and aviation squadrons won’t meet readiness targets. The Navy has also delayed planned fleet deployments, including the USS Harry S. Truman to the Gulf and the USNS Comfort and USS Thach to the south Atlantic. “In the near term, we will not be able to respond in the way the nation has expected and depended on us,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, told Congress in February.
The effects on the intelligence community are also scary. Contracts, collection systems and analysis are all being trimmed. Some satellite reconnaissance systems may be decommissioned. “We’ll reduce global coverage and may risk missing the early signs of a threat,” says Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of national intelligence.
Now, let’s look at civilian programs. Here, again, the effects are mostly hidden from immediate view, but they could impact the long-term health, education and welfare of the country.
The National Institutes of Health has delayed or halted 700 research awards that help fund the study of diseases affecting millions of Americans. The Labor Department estimates that 1.5 million claimants for emergency unemployment compensation have been affected. The Education Department says nearly $600 million has been cut from special education funding and $700 million from assistance to low-income school districts.
What’s depressing is that the sequestration cuts are being imposed in part so that Congress can avoid making decisions about real fiscal reforms that add revenues and reduce spiraling future costs in Medicare and Social Security. People who wonder why the federal government’s performance is deteriorating should consider what their family or business finances would look like if they had to be approved by Congress.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.