If you're like me, when you first heard the word "sequestration," you looked for a dictionary. Or perhaps your eyes glazed over, hoping to just let the word float down that long river of legal mumbo jumbo. Unfortunately, the word has not gone away. It is said with more frequency and sounds more ominous since we encountered it last winter, when the bipartisan congressional "supercommittee" failed to produce a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Sequestration is indeed a legal term. According to Auburn University's online "Glossary of Political Economy Terms," sequestration traditionally refers to the court stepping in between two parties in an ownership dispute over a valuable piece of property. An agent of the court seizes the property and puts it away for safekeeping – sequestering it – until the matter is resolved.
We are not, however, talking about a property dispute. We are talking about government's highest priority – the safety of its people – due to a $500 billion sequestration of the defense budget over the next 10 years set to go into effect in January because Washington failed to get its fiscal house in order. As adapted by Congress, sequestration is now defined as automatic spending cuts to meet or enforce certain budget policy goals. These reductions, along with others already planned, would leave the Pentagon almost $1 trillion short of the resources needed to protect our nation in the coming years. Such cuts do not bode well for U.S. troops now at war. They also do not bode well for military retirees, recruits, hospital patients, or researchers and developers.
If Congress fails to find a different solution immediately, the matter will be resolved without accountability. Our elected officials will walk away from their biggest challenge, each blaming the other, because they could not reach an agreement that would keep our nation safe without going so far as to pay for that service. In terms of jobs and community impact, the economic result of a defense-budget drawdown is debatable at best, and may be a wash. For the sake of national security and the economy alike, Washington needs to look elsewhere for relief.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been clear about the potential consequences of this looming nightmare. Last November, he said the automatic cuts of sequestration would hollow out the military, leaving an organizational structure without personnel, training programs or equipment. "It's a ship without sailors," he warned lawmakers. "It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger."
Just like that, America goes from global superpower to paper tiger. Terrorists and rogue regimes grow a little stronger, a little more confident, as our ability to oppose them weakens. Just like that, our nation's struggling economy is relieved of enough defense-industry careers to raise the unemployment rate an entire percentage point.
It will take leadership to find a different target to solve this problem. Meanwhile, our troops are at war with terrorists. Instability reigns in the Middle East. Veterans are coming home looking for jobs. And the sequestration clock is ticking toward an hour we simply cannot afford to reach, budget deficit or not.