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Sequestration to Save the Nation? Budgeting, in Sickness and Health

July 25, 2016
In the United States, the attention grabbing forces of “Defense” and “Budget” share a deeply contested, difficult marriage. These entities have hostile families, which generally have a hard time seeing eye to eye. Yet, the union between the two is sacred and unbreakable, even with the constant and abusive give and take. Concerns about the United States’ defense spending act is a constant murmur by the public and government throughout the year. Yet, when it comes time to pass the next Fiscal Year (FY) Appropriations Bills and the National Defense Authorization Act, this murmur turns into a roar.

By: Bianca Donadio, C’18

This summer, I have had the unique opportunity of getting a behind the scenes look at Congress’ role in deciding our nation’s future, in particular, with regards to our armed forces. As I have interned on the Hill for the past five weeks, I have been able to attend many hearings and observe debates on the Senate floor. When it comes to Armed Force Committee Hearings, the homewrecker of Sequestration never goes without a mention. Even now, just hearing the word is enough to elicit a cringe from both Democrats and Republicans alike. The 2013 Sequester implemented automatic, non-discriminatory, across the board budgetary cuts, which went into effect when the two parties failed to come up with a compromise.

The ever-present condemnation of sequestration reminds me of a time when I visited New Orleans. No matter what street I looked down, there would be some building, park, or monument that was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The effects of the hurricane were still visible and prevalent a decade later. Similarly, Armed Force Representatives try to bargain for disaster relief funds due to the damage from the sequestration hurricane, which hit years ago with the Budget Control Act of 2011 and subsequent budget caps. They claim that defense budget cuts pose a great threat to national security and that our Armed Force readiness, capacity, and capabilities will remain compromised until they see more funding. The devastating effects of sequestration seem to be the go-to backstory used by both the Senate and House Armed Force Committees and the DoD/service branch representatives.   

But how can this be? On May 26, 2016, I attended the Joint Hearing of House Armed Services, Navy Force Structure and Readiness: Perspectives from the Fleet. During the opening remarks, House Armed Force Committee Chairman, Mr. Randy Forbes, claimed that the Navy is in a “readiness crisis” [1]. Each of the four Naval Officers acting as witnesses detailed how insufficient funding levels are resulting in devastating effects on our forces and capabilities. Furthermore, they underlined the need to modernize, which may not occur with the current level of funding [1].

Yet, to everyday citizens, when one hears that $40,548,338,000 was appropriated to the US Navy in FY 2016 for Operation and Maintenance alone [2], it seems like an incredulous remark to say that Naval Force Readiness could be faltering. With the budget decisions on center stage for FY 2017, the annual battles begin again. On June 16, 2016, the House passed the FY 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill, which overall provides $517.1 billion in discretionary funding. This is a $3 billion increase from the FY 2016 [3]. As a comparison, though, the Naval Operation and Maintenance appropriation for FY 2017 was slightly decreased to $40,213,485,000. Even though there has been the slight increase in discretionary funding in the FY 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill, the fear of future sequestration for FY 2018 and onwards looms in the distance. The Secretary of Defense, Mr. Ashton Carter, believes that “the reversion to sequestration” is the “greatest risk to the Department of Defense” and our national security [4].

There are three ways that the government spends money: through tax expenditures, mandatory spending, and discretionary spending. The latter of the three is where the twelve Appropriation Bills come into play. The Department of Defense will follow the “use it or lose it” principle to maximize possible funding requests for the next FY. They will then draw up budget proposals, which will go to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Then, a package of proposals will go to Congress after OMB’s revisions. Congress will in turn draw up a bill, which is “must pass” legislation. As Mr. David Vorhaus, UPenn alumni and current OMB employee said, the whole process is a kind of “horse trading.” Everyone is looking out for their own best interests and being right or honest doesn’t guarantee a good outcome for you or your party. The process comes to a close when Congress puts the Defense Bill to a vote and each player in the game resets to work on the next FY bill. At that point, the DoD and Armed Forces turn back to the drawing board in an attempt to develop more projects, more technology, and increase overall readiness. Over half of the discretionary budget funds are provided for the Defense Appropriation Bill, as shown by the pie chart below, yet the cries against sequestration and the lack of readiness linger.

It is obvious that the Committee members and Armed Services’ representatives will prioritize military readiness over other national needs, but when it comes down to it, arguments from both sides of the aisle are heard in order to get the budget finalized, and the OMB isn’t just handing out blank checks. I, of course, have my own biases as well. I was born and raised in Providence, RI, a predominantly liberal environment. I admit that, to me, the pie charts are a bit perplexing and unnerving. But, I also sit from the perspective of a person who plans to commission as a US military officer. Therefore, I value the opinion of the Armed Forces Committee Chairmen, who spend their energy attempting to sustain and increase funding for the armed forces’ readiness and service members.

It is hard to say “no” to the call for defending the nation and protecting our service members; anything contrary could be pegged as unpatriotic. Just as difficult is reconciling how we the people can justify giving half of the pie chart to one department’s basket, while their are so many other nearly empty baskets, full of crises that our nation is facing. It is a difficult balance to strike, a troubled marriage that will need a whole lot of counseling, and a give and take relationship which for better, for worse–more often than not in sickness than health–this nation will continue to endure.



  [1] Joint Hearing of House Armed Services. 114th Cong,, 1st Sess. (2016). Available: https://armedservices.house.gov/legislation/hearings/Navy-Force-Structure 


  [2] U.S. House. Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2016. 114th Congress, 1st Session. H.R. 2685. [Online]. Available: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2685/text


  [3] “The U.S. House of Representatives Committee On Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers,” House Passes FY 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill. [Online]. Available: http://appropriations.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?documentid=394614. [Accessed: 20-Jun-2016].


  [4] R. Sisk, “Carter: Return to Sequestration Biggest Threat to National Security,”Military.com. [Online]. Available: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/03/17/carter-return-sequestration-biggest-threat-national-security.html. [Accessed: 19-Jun-2016].


  [5] “President’s 2016 Budget in Pictures,” National Priorities Project. [Online]. Available: https://www.nationalpriorities.org/analysis/2015/presidents-2016-budget-in-pictures/. [Accessed: 19-Jun-2016].

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