Editorial | A Fresh Chance To Kill Sequestration

by

New Congress Can Show It’s Serious about Responsible Governing

As the 114th U.S. Congress convened for the first time Jan. 6, with Republicans in control of the Senate and boasting a bigger majority in the House, there was talk from some corners of compromise and breaking the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington for several years.

To be sure, there are reasons to be skeptical: The White House remains in Democratic hands, and the Republican leadership still must contend with a restless and occasionally unruly right wing. It also remains to be seen how Democrats will play their new minority hand in the Senate, where they retain enough votes to bottle up Republican legislative initiatives.

A good indicator of whether the new Congress is serious about — or capable of — responsible governance is whether it acts this year to eliminate the budgetary bugbear known as sequestration. Because if there’s one thing that everyone on Capitol Hill, regardless of political persuasion, should be able to agree on, it’s that sequestration has outlived its uselessness.

For those with short memories, sequestration refers to the arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress over an eight-year period should Democrats and Republicans fail to agree on a rational strategy for reducing the federal deficit. Fail they did, and lawmakers stood by as the threatened automatic cuts took effect in 2013 — despite dire warnings about their impact, particularly on Defense Department programs, notably including military space.

Lawmakers subsequently neutralized most of sequestration’s effects for 2014-2015, but barring further congressional action the cuts are scheduled to resume full force in 2016.

As it turned out, satellites did not fall out of the sky when sequestration hit in March 2013, giving some lawmakers a degree of comfort with their legislative fecklessness. But there were tangible negative impacts.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command said in 2013 — as vice commander — sequestration cuts forced the service to lay off about half of its space operations contractor workforce.  Credit: Xinia Productions/Jose Morales
Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command said in 2013 — as vice commander — sequestration cuts forced the service to lay off about half of its space operations contractor workforce. Credit: Xinia Productions/Jose Morales

According to U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who took over as commander of Air Force Space Command last year — in 2013 he was vice commander — sequestration cuts forced the service to lay off about half of its space operations contractor workforce. The most visible casualty was the aging Space Surveillance System, which the Air Force shuttered in August 2013.

While the Air Force was able to minimize the impact by shifting its critical space surveillance mission to other sensors, the service has scant margin to absorb another round of sequestration. In a recent interview, Gen. Hyten said a resumption of sequestration will most certainly force deeper cuts and cited that as his greatest concern.

Then there’s the disruption to Air Force planning caused by the budgetary uncertainty created by the specter of sequestration — regardless of whether it takes effect. This uncertainty likely was a significant factor, for example, in the Air Force’s decision to delay the contract award for the follow-on space surveillance system, known as the Space Fence, which now is not slated to become operational until late 2018. It’s not difficult to envision a slowdown of work on the program, now under contract, should sequestration return next year.

The macro fiscal picture that prompted Congress to pass the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set the sequestration trap, has not changed appreciably. But the sequestration trigger failed to force a deficit reduction agreement, and there’s no evidence that the policy’s implementation served its fallback purpose of reducing federal spending in a meaningful way. It has only invited partisan brinksmanship while making it virtually impossible for federal and military planners to do their job.

If sequestration is not permanently defanged — early this year, before it can hijack the 2016 budget and planning process — it will be a strong, objective indication that this Congress is no more serious about good governance than its predecessors.