For the record and on background, in the offices and in the corridors, the message from the Puzzle Palace this week is the same: We've taken one for the team. We've been preparing for months to absorb a $400 billion reduction in the growth of our budget over the next little while. (Maybe a decade, maybe longer.) So now, leave us alone. And if Congress' super-team can't come to an agreement on deficit reduction and spare us another $500 billion in reductions -- which would be triggered by the Doomsday Device -- all hell will break loose.
A senior Pentagon official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of not being identified, said the potential $850 billion net budget cut could mean furloughs or layoffs for DoD's civilian workforce, and major disruptions to programs and contracts. Especially worrisome is technical nature of how the cut would happen, as an immediate "sequestration," rather than the more malleable "cuts" Congress can tweak from year to year, the official said. "Sequestration" would clamp down in the middle of fiscal year 2013, and it would be as though someone stepped on the hose running to the money sprinkler. But how bad would it actually be?
"I think we would be faced with furloughs and involuntary separations, but I can’t be specific and I hope I never have to be," the senior official said. "This would be unacceptable."
If there's a silver lining in the Doomsday Device scenario, it's that the debt ceiling law gives President Obama the authority to exempt uniformed service members, so DoD would not also have to furlough or cut troops. But the Building sees no silver linings here -- it considers this idea so horrific that it's not even preparing an emergency what-if plan just in case it happens. The E-Ring leadership is counting on the Super-Congress to come through for it.
In fact, the senior official said Wednesday that the Building hopes the Super Congress doesn't cut any more defense spending as it looks for the $1.2 trillion in reductions that are its charge. "I would expect them to focus on entitlements and taxes," the official said. Incredible! Many of the hacks in the briefing room couldn't believe what they heard, but there it was: The Pentagon expects the Super Congress -- whose Republican members almost certainly will burn with so much anti-tax zealotry they'll make Joan of Arc look like a high-school stoner -- to protect its budget by cutting entitlements or raising taxes.
Could it happen? Whatever else Team America ends up doing, it's difficult to imagine the members' deal won't include at least some additional defense spending cuts -- or the appearance thereof. It could be as simple as adding a $50 billion reduction for DoD, so that combined with the first-round elimination of $350 billion under this week's deal, it brings the Pentagon back to the $400 billion where it has been focusing. But the second cut also could be much bigger, as the gulf widens between defense advocates and deficit hawks and we hear more and more from the reemergent isolationist strain in American politics.
Or, even though the Pentagon expects it won't happen, the Doomsday Device could go off. Republicans say they will not agree to any taxes as a part of the second-round bargain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says if there are no "revenues" in the deal, there will be no bill. Nobody in Washington wants to get along -- these days, voters reward intransigence. America, as we've seen this summer, now gets a kick out of pointing a revolver at its head and spinning the cylinder.