When Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing what he thought was the greatest threat to the national security of the United States, he didn't say it was Iran, North Korea, or even al-Qaeda. The admiral, without hesitation, said the greatest threat to our country is our debt. Since 2009, our deficits have been over $1 trillion each year and our debt has climbed from $10.6 trillion to $16.6 trillion.
In response to demands for action to curb our debt crisis, in July 2011 the Congress passed and President Obama signed the Budget Control Act (BCA), which required a cap on yearly spending and future deficit reduction. This reduction was supposed to come from the so called “Super Committee,” but if they failed to pass a plan (and they did), the backup plan was across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion. These cuts are to be spread over a 10-year period, equally divided between defense and non-defense spending.
The cuts equal only 2 percent of total federal spending but they have a disproportionate impact: They mostly fall on what is called “discretionary” spending and that represents only about a third of the budget. The other two-thirds of the federal budget is either interest payments on our debt or what is called “mandatory” spending and is primarily driven by entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These are mostly exempt from sequester — so while defense spending is about 19 percent of total spending, it is taking half of the spending cuts.
The major flaw in the sequester is that it is across-the-board. All programs subject to it are cut equally, regardless of their value. This is particularly damaging in defense spending, where no strategic considerations can be used to program the cuts. We will cut items critical to our front-line troops the same as we cut military bands, or administrative positions.
I introduced legislation (HR 804) to cancel the across-the-board cuts to defense spending and instead replace them with smarter, more targeted cuts. I tried to focus on reducing headquarters and support functions, and to avoid limiting our strategic flexibility to counter emerging threats to our national security. But just like in defense spending, this need to be smarter in where we cut is true for non-defense spending as well. Instead of a sequester, we need to prioritize spending in order to protect our military, our veterans, our seniors and families from being negatively impacted.
The sequester was intended to be a placeholder to give Congress the time to come up with an alternative plan before it would be automatically implemented in 2013. That is why I voted for it. And yet, nothing happened, and there has been no agreement.
I believe the only way to resolve the problem is through a grand bargain whereby Democrats yield on entitlement reform to slow the growth of spending and so protect the future of these programs, and Republicans put revenue on the table through closing credits and deductions for corporations and individuals. Until this happens we are hurting our seniors and threatening our nation's financial solvency. Social Security and Medicare, and thus our federal budget, are not sustainable without reforms. We cannot solve our problem only through raising new revenues, and scare-mongering on entitlement reforms means that the real structural problems in federal spending are being ignored.
I will continue to work in a bipartisan manner towards developing a fiscally responsible plan.
Mike Coffman is the U.S. Representative for the 6th District and has a combined 21 years of military experience between the Army, the Army Reserve, the U.S. Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserve.