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January 04, 2013 10:52 AM Obama’s New Leverage: Implement The Defense Sequester

By Jonathan Zasloff

There is much bemoaning in Blue Blogistan that by agreeing to the fiscal cliff deal, President Obama relinquished his leverage of the sunsetting Bush tax cuts. (Markos says that the higher tax rates are the President’s “ONLY leverage.”). Even those who aren’t angry think that somehow he has little leverage left. I don’t think that that’s right.

Consider the defense sequester, which Very Serious People inside the Beltway believe to be some sort of problem. I see no basis for this belief.

If the defense sequester is implemented, then defense budget will be — what it was in FY 2007, when we still had hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq. Keep that in mind the next time you read about how the sequester will give us a “hollow force.” Did we have a hollow force during the Dubya Regency?

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has made the point succinctly:

The Bipartisan Policy Center projected that defense sequestration, if triggered, would lower the Pentagon’s budget (excluding war costs) for fiscal year 2013 to $498 billion. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped in July 2009: “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

Conservatives often make similar arguments about domestic spending: “we are just going back to what we were spending five years ago!” Progressives reject this, and I think rightfully, because our population is greater, and economic conditions are different (e.g. spending the same on Food Stamps during a recession and during an expansion makes no sense under Economics 101). Would the same principle apply to defense spending? Hardly. There is noting about cyclical conditions that makes spending money on a bloated military establishment equivalent to spending on counter-cyclical policies such as Food Stamps and unemployment benefits. Just as importantly, the terms of the defense sequester specifically allow the President to exempt salaries and benefits for military personnel, and President Obama has already ordered this exemption. If advocates of ending the sequester believe that it is the best way to maintain counter-cyclical policies, then they must do things that thus far they have refused to do: 1) show why defense spending represent good counter-cyclical policy; and 2) give up the right-wing Republican nonsense that we should reduce spending in the first place.

Many of the most detailed arguments in favor of the defense sequester come from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank that I admit I had not heard of before: its crucial backgrounder on the defense sequester can be found here. Is it a real operation, or a fake think tank like the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a Koch-funded libertarian whack job outfit that became briefly famous for “finding” that Al Gore’s home in Tennessee was an energy guzzler (a claim that has yet to be confirmed)? CSBA looks to be the real deal, or at least hardly a left-wing front: it’s board members include David McCurdy, Pete Dupont, and James Woolsey. Whatever else one might say about it, its people aren’t hanging out with Wavy Gravy.

The sequester method is hardly the best one to effect long-term, measured reductions in the defense establishment. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Defense Secretary Panetta has been egregiously irresponsible with his Chicken Little warnings about what will happen if the sequester is implemented. A new Defense Secretary cannot come too quickly.

President Obama needs to use the leverage that the defense sequester gives him. The Republicans want to get rid of the defense sequester — badly. By now, we should all be past the silly notion that the GOP wants to reduce spending: it only wants to reduce spending that could possibly assist low-income and working Americans. Very well, the President has to say: I will veto any bill that gets rid of the defense sequester unless I get my own priorities in spending and revenue. End of story.

And conversely, if the President does not use this leverage, and instead agrees to benefit cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and crucial domestic priorities, he will have no one to blame but himself.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.