Sequestration would force the government to reduce discretionary spending by about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Roughly half of that, or $600 billion, would come from defense -- a hugely disproportionate amount to take from the Pentagon. And the cuts would be the worst possible sort: everything slashed, across the board, good programs and bad.
That's no accident. Sequestration was designed to be so awful that Congress would find a better way to cut spending. So far, that hasn't happened.
But just because the sequestration cuts are bad doesn't mean the defense budget should be sacrosanct. In fact, there are hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon spending that can be cut without compromising the military's effectiveness.
Maintaining national security requires underwriting a lot of departments: Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and countless others. But looking just at the Defense Department, the Obama administration this year plans to spend (without sequestration) $550 billion on the basic operations of the Pentagon, plus $88 billion specifically on the war in Afghanistan -- a total of $638 billion.
Back in 2007, the Pentagon's base budget was just $431 billion, with $132 billion added for the war in Iraq and $34 billion for Afghanistan -- a total of $597 billion. Given that it was a peak year for war spending in Iraq, in part because of a costly troop surge, is there any reason the U.S. should be spending more on the Pentagon's base budget today, adjusted for inflation, than it did in 2007?
"If we go back to '07, we had the Army we have today, and it was surging in Iraq, with all the logistical support it needed," says one senior GOP Senate aide. "No one in '07 was screaming that we didn't have enough money for the military."
How to get back to those 2007 levels? Watchdog groups, along with Republican Tom Coburn, the Senate's leading budget hawk, have plenty of suggestions.