Speaking Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain called for an end to the “mindless sequester caps” that he said would cut nearly $1 trillion from the Pentagon over the next decade.
McCain is facing a partisan fight and potential veto of the annual defense policy authorization bill. The president and many Democrats are determined to stop the measure because of its heavy reliance on Overseas Contingency Operations war funding to circumvent the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps—and because many Democrats want to lift the caps altogether.
In his speech, McCain took aim—admirably so—at waste and abuse in the Pentagon, echoing budget hawks by saying that the Department of Defense has become “larger but less capable, more complex but less innovative.” He spoke of the need to root out Pentagon waste while investing in modernization and technologies, and later responded in the affirmative to the question of whether he supports a Pentagon audit. He also said that the legislation making its way through conference has identified around $10 billion in waste, money that could be reinvested in weaponry.
McCain lambasted the prospect of an NDAA veto, saying repeatedly that “America is not safe.” Referencing Ronald Reagan, he called for a “revolution of conservative ideas,” of which national defense is the most important.
Troublingly, he blurred the line between the BCA caps and what he called “sequester” caps, claiming that “sequestration” makes cuts indiscriminately and does not contain the scalpel-like approach necessary for smart reforms. He also criticized the recent announcement of 40,000 troops being cut “because of the sequester,” saying “there is nothing conservative about balancing the budget on the backs of our military.”
McCain may be right on that point, but he is also gravely misrepresenting the current budget situation. He knows better than to mix up the most basic budgetary definitions.
As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted in a panel following McCain’s speech, appropriators are not actually acting within “sequester” caps, which very few on any side support publicly. The sequester, which is the mandated consequence when appropriators don’t spend under the BCA caps, has been activated only once, when the so-called “super committee” failed to agree on $1 trillion in cuts back in 2011.
The question of what foreign policy approach the United States will pursue in the years to come is a crucial one, but that debate should be undertaken honestly, not based on half-truths and fear-mongering. As McCain noted repeatedly in his speech, there is bureaucratic waste and abuse in the Pentagon just as in any other government department. And because the Pentagon is responsible for protecting the nation, we should be even more determined to root out its wasteful spending before rushing to add more to its coffers.
It’s possible that more money is required to keep our nation safe – despite the many examples of massive waste like the F-35, that question is not for me to answer. But Americans should hold congressional leaders responsible when they misrepresent confusing rules in an attempt to get those rules overturned. The Budget Control Act and the sequester can be complicated, but misunderstandings should not be furthered by Beltway leaders like McCain.
At the end of the day, McCain misses the mark in rushing to roll back the only significant win for responsible spenders in years. If Republicans, most of whom claim to support balanced budgets, cannot hold the line on the small restrictions of the bipartisan Budget Control Act, can we expect them to hold the line on anything?