In 2011, the U.S. federal debt stood at approximately $15 trillion. The nation had reached its legal debt limit and needed to pass a law to increase its authority to borrow more money. That law, the Budget Control Act, was adopted in August 2011. It immediately raised the debt limit by $2.1 trillion (to roughly $17 trillion now) in exchange for a commitment to reduce the fast-surging growth in federal spending by $2.1 trillion over 10 years.
Roughly $1 trillion of those savings is being implemented through something called the sequester, or automatic spending cuts.
I voted against the Budget Control Act for several reasons. Among them is that it failed to address the real cause of our nation’s looming debt crisis while also posing a danger to defense. Defense accounts for only one-sixth of the federal budget. But, under the BCA, it was forced to take half the cuts.
In 1960, defense was half of the budget. In 2013, it was 18 percent. In 10 years, it will be less than 13 percent. Each year, the government will spend more and more on social programs — such as free government health care — while defense shrinks. I believe this trend poses a long-term threat to our nation’s safety. Many European countries have followed this same path and have come to rely on the United States for a defense shield — but we have no one to rely on to provide a shield for us.
One of the most disruptive features of the Budget Control Act is the sudden one-year drop in defense spending that occurs during the current 2014 fiscal year. This abrupt one-year reduction is actually very wasteful: it would result in contract breaches, costly research and development interruptions, unnecessary furloughs and damaged readiness. It makes efficient financial planning extremely difficult.
I have suggested for now a modest step, with bipartisan appeal, that will more responsibly manage the defense budget while maintaining the savings promised in the original window. This proposal would prevent this year’s sudden reductions by slowing the growth of the defense budget in the following years. The exact same amount of money would be saved. But, through a uniform defense growth rate of 1 percent, further damaging reductions can be avoided this year and our military readiness can be protected. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recently said: “We need the certainty of a predictable funding stream, a reliable top line. We also need the time to implement trade-offs in force structure modernization and readiness, as well as compensation. And we need the full flexibility to keep the force in balance.”
Defense is a core, vital, constitutional function of government. Our service members, Department of Defense civilian personnel, and veterans deserve a predictable, rational and sustainable defense spending plan.
In a sane Washington, reorganizing the sequester would be easy: every year the government wastes billions on everything from tax credits for illegal immigrants to failed energy projects like Solyndra. There is no lack of waste from which to identify savings — but there are many lawmakers determined to protect any program from trimming.
Ultimately, deeper structural changes will be needed. If we are to truly secure our nation’s defense and create a growing economy, smart reforms to welfare and mandatory programs are vital. So large is our domestic budget that, on our current deficit course, interest on the debt will exceed our entire defense budget in just six short years. In other words, we will be paying more in annual interest payments to our creditors then we will be paying to defend our own country.
The modest fix I have presented is already running into the usual Washington headwinds. But, this approach has clear merit, support in the Pentagon, and strong interest from some Democrats.
Hopefully, both sides can agree on a path forward that is right for our country in the months ahead.
I remain firm in my commitment to both preserving our nation’s defense capabilities and getting unchecked federal spending under control. We can and must do both.
Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, is a U.S. senator from Alabama.