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Of budgets and blunt instruments: how little-known left-right cooperation on defense brought you sequester

Satellite image of the Pentagon.
Satellite image of the Pentagon.
Getty Images/Getty Images

The Pentagon's budget, after growing 75 percent in the decade after 9/11, comprises half of all US discretionary spending. Its size and sanctity was supposed to be the immovable object — the Maginot Line, for the military history buffs — that staved off sequestration. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, the conventional wisdom went, would want to risk the wrath of the military and the attack ads of the other side by allowing the defense budget to decline.

Instead, sequestration brought overall Pentagon spending down 17 percent between 2011 and 2014 — a rate of decline unprecedented since World War II and the Korean War.

U.S. Defense Spending, 1940-2014

US defense spending, 1940 to 2014.

Washington — and the nation — has now faced the prospect of a government shutdown four times since 2011. Every one has featured a media-friendly conflict out front: Planned Parenthood, John Boehner, whether the snacks at the White House were nice enough, who talked to Joe Biden. Every time, leaders from both parties and the defense industry try, behind the scenes, to leverage change in how the mandatory cuts affect defense. And for the most part, they fail. Why?

In a new case study for New America's New Models of Policy Change project, journalist John T. Bennett identifies two factors that got us here and continue to shape where we go next — or don't go. First is the emergence since 2010 of a powerful subset of Republicans who care more about cutting the size of government than anything else — and do not feel beholden to the party's traditional power centers, particularly veterans lobbies, defense appropriators, and their corporate sponsors.

This fissure within the GOP on defense would not have been enough, however, without a second factor, little recognized up to now: a beneath-the-radar coalition that brought the new Republicans — and their strongest supporters — together with progressive Democrats who had attempted for more than a decade to slow or roll back the post-9/11 military buildup.

Bennett identifies ways that this coalition worked together on policy development, messaging, and lobbying. The little-known 2010 Sustainable Defense Task Force, commissioned by Reps. Barney Frank Walter Jones, and Ron Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden, brought together a broad spectrum of left, liberal, realist, and libertarian defense thinkers (including this author). The recommendations of this unlikely  group then found their way into both the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin plans for large-scale deficit reduction.

Those reports seemed to give political approval to a level of Pentagon cuts that matched the level of domestic discretionary cuts that would satisfy the spending hawks. So they found their way into the Budget Control Act that set up sequester. Leaders in both parties, commentators, and the defense industry assumed that the political fallout from the scope of cuts proposed would force a deal before sequestration entered into force. But the reverse occurred; political pressure came from both sides to maintain the defense cuts — for different reasons, but with the same result.

This drew the attention of small progressive funders, looking to reverse what Dini Merz, program officer at the Colombe Foundation, saw as an effort that had been "marginalized as lefties" with "no political clout." Relatively small but timely infusions of funds created a campaign-coordinating body and funded a hush-hush out-of-town retreat, at which libertarians and progressives got to know each other over drinks — and built a strategy of shared messaging while agreeing to disagree on what to do with the savings.

The subsequent lobbying effort built a small group of key Democratic and GOP staff who met and compared intelligence, traded votes, and provided key numbers that sent a recurring message to party leadership — they didn't have the votes to remove defense from sequester — and scored occasional victories on outdated but politically popular weapons systems. In the past year, defense's traditional allies have fought back, finding stratagems to get some money around sequestration through off-budget contingency funds, but not to end or reverse sequestration's effects.

Sequester and budget uncertainty together are a matter of anguish inside the Pentagon, affecting training and readiness and, according to one recent report, requiring a thousand personnel to spend their days working on contingency planning every time a shutdown threatens. This is not true outside the Pentagon, even as the country began a new military engagement in Iraq and Syria, and as presidential candidates ratchet up the rhetoric about threats facing the US. Sequestration has been relatively fast to shift the curve of Pentagon spending, but much slower in sparking the major reforms on hard issues that advocates and opponents of increased defense spending agree must occur.

Four years later, even as presidential candidates from both parties propose more robust US engagements overseas, no one on Capitol Hill believes sequester will be lifted any time soon. If the Pentagon budget case represents hope for transpartisanship as a means of bypassing gridlock, it is a very blunt instrument.