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Guest Opinion: A sequester looms, and defense contractors are nearing a panic

 

July 5, 2012



Reprinted from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Woe is the Pentagon.

How is the nation supposed to defend itself on a lousy $470 billion a year? Never mind that it's more than the combined total spent on defense by the next 14 nations combined.

But $470 billion will be the Pentagon's pauper pittance unless Congress somehow manages to pass a long-term debt reduction deal before Jan. 2 of next year. That's the magical date that the “sequester” goes into effect, a product of a congressional “supercommittee's” botched handling of debt-reduction talks last November.

The anvil hanging over the supercommittee was the agreement that failing a deal, $1.2 trillion in spending would be cut by 2020, divided evenly between defense and domestic spending. The supercommittee failed because Republicans adamantly refused to consider raising taxes to help offset the devastation of cutting so much spending.

So it's a tad hypocritical — but not surprising — to see that Republicans now want to renege on the sequestration deal. And they're getting some help from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a Democrat, who has muttered things like “meat ax” and “disaster” and “hollow force.”

That is patently absurd. At $470 million, the Pentagon still would be spending roughly the same as it did in in 2007, exclusive of “Overseas Contingency Operations,” which is what the Pentagon calls wars.

The Pentagon would get an extra $88 billion next year to fight the nation's wars. Military pay and manpower would have first claim on the $470 billion, meaning that everything else would have to take about a 13 percent cut. Slightly smaller cuts would be made every year thereafter for eight years.

No wonder defense contractors have mounted an all-out lobbying and PR assault, warning that sequestration would cost 1 million jobs and, with $59 billion in lost earnings, clobber economic recovery.

Missouri could expect to lose 31,196 jobs, and Illinois could lose 21,626, according to a defense industry study by economist Stephen S. Fuller at George Mason University.

The nice thing about this is that the threat of all those lost home-state jobs might persuade some recalcitrant Republicans of the need to raise revenue. The unfortunate thing is that fewer people are talking about the devastation that sequestration would wreak on domestic programs.

A new analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center notes that domestic cuts “will directly hit people and activities that are critical to American society. The 12 percent across-the-board cut will be indiscriminately applied, affecting National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants to research cures for cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's; scientific research; mental health services; special education programs; the safety of our food and drugs; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and many other programs.”

What else? Housing assistance. Teacher grants for disadvantaged kids. Air traffic controllers, FBI agents, Border Patrol agents. Everything that the federal government does that is lumped into the 15 percent of the budget that's labeled “non-defense discretionary” will take a 12 percent cut.

You don't hear about them because, unlike defense contractors, they're not organized enough to lobby, but they are every bit as important to the nation's wellbeing as guns and bullets.

Nobody really thinks sequestration will happen. It's a tactic, not a viable policy. It's a cattle prod for getting Republican members of Congress to sit down and rationally compromise for the good of the nation. Which is what they're paid to do.

 

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