June 2, 2017

By: Alice B. Lloyd

President Trump’s budget request for defense spending is at once too much and not enough.

It falls short of the build-up he pledged early on during the campaign and more recently at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. It exceeds Obama’s spending projections by 3 percent, and adds 5 percent to the current budget. But this proposed hike—especially with personnel increases and a pay-raise approved by Congress last year—is too slight to begin the growth he ran on. And yet, Trump’s request still exceeds existing spending caps (as would have Obama’s projection)—the caps have been raised three times since their enactment in 2011. Still Trump’s proposal necessarily came with a request for Congress to up the caps again.

The latter point is the most important, as it means that footing the bill would require revising the spending limits, which often get conflated with the provision that enforces them: sequestration, or “the sequester.”

The Budget Control Act (BCA) was first borne from the rocky 2011 budget negotiations. It raised the debt ceiling and created:

  • Budget caps to limit spending over 10 years, with separate caps for defense aimed to reduce spending by $1 trillion by 2021.
  • A super-committee empowered to strike a deal and avert the budget cap cuts, which instead ended up taking effect in 2013.
  • An enforcement mechanism that would be triggered if, in the absence of a deal, the budget caps were exceeded. They were, and this enforcement mechanism was the sequestration: automatic, across-the-board cuts which uniformly sliced into defense and non-defense spending.

The BCA has been modified three times since its enactment; most recently, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 raised the cap for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 and gave a boost to defense funding with an allocation for Overseas Contingency Operations. Today, both political parties talk of lifting the caps and “ending sequestration.” The threat of sequestering the budget, which is a universally undesirable way to manage money, is considered especially dangerous in the defense world.

It looms over budget debates so much that the word “sequestration”—or the even more common verb-as-noun form “sequester”—has become a standard, but not entirely accurate, way to refer to the budget caps.

When political leaders and news stories refer to life “under sequestration— and call lifting the caps “lifting the sequester”—they’re not telling the whole truth, according to Todd Harrison, a noted defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Harrison told TWS Fact Check that use of the term “under the sequester” instead of, say, under the threat of the sequester or most accurately under the BCA budget caps is a rhetorically significant: “People like to use that word because everyone agrees that sequestration is bad, but they’re using the word to mean something entirely different.”

And it’s also politically distracting, even avoidant, Harrison posits. “I think people often choose to use ‘sequestration’ because they don’t want to confront the harder issue, which is: What’s the right level of defense spending, how much should we spend? So they use the sequestration bogeyman.”

All of which is to say that when President Trump says he will ask Congress to eliminate the defense sequester, he is actually referring to the budget capping for defense spending that the sequester enforces. And he’s not alone:

A more cut-and-dry example of accurate and inaccurate references to the sequester and the legacy of the BCA can be found in comparison of the two 2016 party platforms.

Here’s the Democratic National Committee on defense spending in the federal budget:

  • “We support a smart, predictable defense budget that meets the strategic challenges we face, not the arbitrary cuts that the Republican Congress enacted as part of sequestration.”

And here’s the Republican National Committee on the same subject:

  • “The U.S. defense budget has suffered a 25 percent cut in real dollars in the five years since sequestration. We support lifting the budget cap for defense and reject the efforts of Democrats to hold the military’s budget hostage for their domestic agenda.”

The parties are obviously pointing the finger at each other. And in that they’re not wrong. As the DNC suggests, Republican Congress did enact the BCA after failed budget negotiations in 2011, but they did not “enact” sequestration cuts that year. Automatic across-the-board sequestering of the budget was only triggered under the BCA once it became a provision of that law in 2011 (once “in the five years since sequestration,” as the RNC also somewhat misleadingly puts it).

In 2013, when the budget caps went into effect, spending in excess of them triggered automatic sequestration cuts. It hasn’t been triggered since, and—unless Congress knowingly appropriates funds in excess of the caps—it won’t be again. (Sequestration had been triggered before, Harrison points out in this helpful Q&A—in the 1980s and 1990s, under an earlier law passed in 1985.)

It might be more accurate to say that we live in a budgetary era defined by the threat of sequestration. So long as this consequence of overspending exists to enforce existing caps, the sinister-sounding word for it will get plenty of play. Particularly while Republicans in Congress, anticipating the support of the president, are working on doing away with it by 2018—three years ahead of the BCA’s decade-long deficit reduction plan.

Knowing the difference between the 2011 budget caps and the sequestration provision that enforces them, however, lets us draw a line between the essence of a much-maligned law and the controversial consequence for breaking it.