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Avoiding Automatic Spending Trigger Isn’t Sufficient to Declare DOD Budget Victory

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  • September 21, 2011
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Since lawmakers reached agreement on a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling early last month, Pentagon leaders and elected officials have focused on the onerous automatic cuts in defense spending that would occur if the congressional deficit reduction committee created under the agreement fails to find at least $1.2 trillion in overall budget savings over the next 10 years.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for one, has been quite clear about the “potentially devastating” impact to the military that would follow automatic cuts, which could reach $600 billion if Congress fails to enact a second round of reductions by Dec. 23.

“Since the cuts would have to be applied in equal percentages to every project area, we just simply could not avoid hollowing out the force. That will be the ultimate result if sequester goes into effect,” Panetta stated at a Pentagon news briefing Tuesday.

At the same time, he has accepted the initial spending cuts called for under the debt limit agreement, which will require trimming $350 billion from Pentagon spending over the next 10 years (or $450 billion, depending on whether you measure the cuts against the department’s fiscal 2012 budget request or the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline).

“These reductions will force us to take on greater risk in our mission to protect the country in time of war and in the face of growing security challenges.┬áMy goal is to try to make sure that these risks are acceptable by making sure that we maintain a strong defense and preserve our ability to protect our core national security interests,” he said at the news briefing.

It’s the combination of the two — which would approach a $1 trillion hit to defense spending — that Panetta wants to head off. But what would be the impact of a middle-case scenario, if the deficit reduction committee avoids triggering automatic spending reductions by agreeing on a sufficient level of savings, but in doing so includes, say, a couple hundred billion dollars in additional cuts to DOD?

Panetta responded to exactly that question at the news briefing, saying that any cuts beyond the initial $450 billion reduction will be harmful.

“If additional cuts are added on top of that, either by virtue of sequester or by the super committee or by anybody else, then they’re going to do serious damage to our ability to be able to make the kind of changes in our defense structure that are responsible and that do protect this country for the future,” the secretary stated.

Congress should look to non-discretionary spending — which account for two-thirds of the federal budget — for additional savings, he added.

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