Sequester: The Last Tool We Have
House Chamber, Washington, D.C.
February 27, 2013
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire offers us a sobering warning of a great a nation that became over-extended and war-weary abroad, while it became utterly profligate and decadent at home. Its economy in shambles and its treasury bankrupt, the mightiest military power on Earth finally fell easy prey for backward hordes that had previously existed only beyond the fringe of civilization.
Three years ago, Admiral Mike Mullen sounded the alarm for our nation with this chilling warning: "Our national debt is our biggest national security threat."
That was three years ago, when our debt stood at $13 ½ trillion. Today, we owe $16 ½ trillion. In other words, since he issued that warning, we have added more to this country’s debt than we did in our nation’s first 200 years.
No nation has ever taxed and borrowed and spent its way to prosperity, but many nations have taxed and borrowed and spent their way to economic ruin and bankruptcy and history is screaming this warning at us: Nations that bankrupt themselves aren’t around very long, because before you can provide for the common defense you have to be able to pay for it, and the ability of our nation to do so is coming into grave question.
Just in the first four weeks of this year, Congress added more than a third of a trillion dollars of new spending to this crushing burden.
The fiscal cliff deal added $300 billion of new spending and the Hurricane Sandy bill added another $50 billion – more than 90 percent of which had nothing to do with emergency relief for storm victims. Earlier this month, Congress simply did away with the debt limit altogether until mid-May.
Two years ago, Congress passed the so-called “The Budget Control Act” that authorized the biggest single expansion of debt in our nation’s history.
But Congress also agreed to reduce the projected deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years – either by a super-committee or, failing that, through an automatic budget reduction called the “sequester.”
The sequester doesn’t actually cut spending in any conventional sense of the word. After a decade in which spending has grown 64 percent – or nearly twice the rate of inflation and population combined -- the sequester merely limits the increase next year to one half of one percent.
I opposed that Act in part because its sequester was less than 1/3 of what officials at Standard and Poors warned was the minimum necessary deficit reduction to preserve our nation’s triple-A credit rating. I also objected to across-the-board cuts – that treat our highest priority the same as our lowest – and the disproportionate impact it would have on our defense budget.
These warnings fell on deaf ears at the time.
But since then, twice the House has tried to address this mistake with legislation to replace the worst of the defense cuts with long-term entitlement reform. That’s ultimately the only way to bring our fiscal crisis and its spiraling debt under control.
Both died in the Senate, and after the November election, the likelihood of any entitlement reform over the next several years is exceedingly remote.
Which means that however imperfect the sequester may be, it is at this moment in our history, the ONLY tool currently available to us to BEGIN to point our nation back toward fiscal solvency and away from the perilous fiscal path that we are now on.
We need to give administrators – especially the military command – the flexibility to set priorities and manage our money accordingly. But the overall sequester reductions must be maintained.
A few months ago, the chief of sovereign debt for Standard and Poors made this point: that although the sequester was insufficient to justify maintaining a triple-A credit rating, it was at least a step in the right direction. He said, “the sequester was an agreement that Congress made with itself, and we would view any step back from that agreement very negatively.”
When the history of our era is written, let it not be said that ours was a generation of locusts that consumed not only the wealth we inherited from our fathers and mothers, but also stripped bare the futures of our sons and daughters.
Let us instead begin a new direction for our nation: stepping back from the fiscal precipice that threatens to destroy our nation from within.